Outdoor hockey in the NHL proving to be a massive hit

The annual event known as the NHL Winter Classic not only ushered in the 2014 New Year on January 1 but also took the ice hockey world back to its original roots.

Since being introduced during the regular season back in 2008, the Winter Classic has steadily gained popularity with players, officials and most importantly the fans.

It allows the game to be played in its most pure form – outside in the blistering cold among falling snow and gusty winds, the way it was originally created – bar the frozen pond.

And this season marks an unprecedented announcement that six outdoor games would be staged with the Winter Classic (Jan 1), NHL Stadium Series (Jan 25,26,29 & March 1 and 2) and the Heritage Classic which is being held for the third time and first since 2011.

The two participating teams for this season’s 2014 NHL Winter Classic were the home side Detroit Red Wings and their visiting opponents Toronto Maple Leafs – both original six franchises.

There was massive hype and expectation about this game and it delivered on all levels.

This game was initially intended to be staged on New Year’s Day 2013 but was pushed back a year after the 2012–13 NHL lockout debacle.

An NHL record crowd of 105,491 turned out in the frigid temperatures at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor to see the Leafs beat the Red Wings 3-2 in a shootout.

‘The Big House’ would prove to be the perfect setting for the Winter Classic providing a bowl atmosphere for ideal viewing and provided a fantastic experience for fans and especially the players.

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“It was the best experience I’ve probably ever had playing hockey,” said Red Wings forward Justin Abdelkader, who went to Michigan State, “It was awesome. It brings you back to your childhood days when you were out in the back yard or playing on a pond. It was a lot of fun. I was just thankful to have the opportunity.”

Both teams were wearing their respective teams’ heritage jersey’s featuring design elements from as early as the 1930’s.

Even the coaches were swept up in the vintage surrounds with Red Wings coach Mike Babcock sporting a Don Draper style fedora hat and red bomber jacket.

The cake-tin stadium in America’s North East showcased the star spangled banner colours of red, white and blue whether intended or not it was a truly magical spectacle.

The fans at home tuned in their dials as well with a record regular season viewership of a combined 8.234 million viewers across North America beating the previous best of 6.6 million for the 2011 Winter Classic.

With regular snowfall throughout the entirety of the game, watching the game at home was particularly difficult for viewers but for the players it was especially challenging.

“I thought the NHL did a good job,” Maple Leafs captain Dion Phanuef said. “The guys who were keeping the snow off the ice were really doing a consistent job in every break of coming out and cleaned it, but there was a lot of snow that fell. I was watching them shovel it and you could see the piles by the time they were down there.”

The NHL Stadium Series will feature a Los Angeles derby between the Anaheim Ducks and LA Kings followed by a New York trifecta of games featuring the Rangers, Devils and Islanders.

The fourth and final matchup in the Stadium Series sees the Chicago Blackhawks hosting the Pittsburgh Penguins on the Chicago Bears’ home turf, Soldier Field with a tow numbing outdoor temperature expected.

In the Heritage Classic – which is usually an all Canadian affair and this year proves to be no different – the Ottawa Senators will take on the Vancouver Canucks at BC Place in Vancouver.

If this year’s Winter Classic game with record TV viewership and crowd attendance is any indication, the NHL and ice hockey in general will benefit greatly from staging more of these events moving forward.

And it seems that the message has been received loud and clear.

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