Every year, NHL fans look forward to watching the Winter Classic. The competition is a piece of modern NHL history that pays homage to the origins of the sport. Unlike in other sports, the Winter Classic isn’t an All-Star match or postseason game. It’s part of the regular season and counts in the standings, which means the stakes are real for players. Fans enjoy the traditions of the matchup and players battle to secure victory for their team. We’ve compiled this guide to the history of the NHL Winter Classic to teach you about the tradition.
History of the Winter Classic
The Winter Classic is a relatively new tradition. It began in 2008, but the concept has been around since 2004. NBC Sports executive vice president Jon Miller conceptualized the event as a way of paying respect to the history of hockey. Although the bigwigs at NBC Sports initially felt the idea wasn’t workable, it became an instant hit with fans during its inaugural year. In fact, the game attracted over 71,000 fans during its first play.
The inaugural game took place on Jan. 1, 2008. Ralph Wilson Stadium, now called Bills Stadium, hosted the game at its location in Orchard Park, New York. Ever since then, the event has taken place at a football or baseball arena in a city with a resident hockey team. During this first game, the Buffalo Sabres faced off against the Pittsburgh Penguins. The game came down to a shootout, and the Penguins ultimately prevailed, winning the match 2-1.
Due to the popularity of the initial game, the Winter Classic got approved to continue the following year. In 2009, Wrigley Field in Chicago hosted. The game took place once again on Jan 1, but this time, the Detroit Red Wings played against the Chicago Blackhawks. Once again, it had fans flocking to watch. In fact, the second Classic had so many viewers that it achieved the highest American television ratings of any hockey game in the past 33 years. This success can be attributed to the fierce rivalry between the two Midwest teams.
The popularity of the first two Winter Classics sealed its success. With the number of fans and viewers the game attracted, more and more stadiums and fields wanted to host the event. Stadiums that have hosted the event include Boston’s Fenway Park, Philadelphia’s Lincoln Financial Park, Ann Arbor’s Michigan Stadium, and St. Louis’ Busch Stadium. For 2023, Fenway Park hosted the Winter Classic on Jan. 2.
The NHL has supported the event every year since 2008, only canceling it once in 2013 due to the lockout. Besides the lockout, some games encountered challenges due to weather. Since the Classic takes place outside, rain and winter storms occasionally interfere. For example, in 2011 and 2012, the game faced weather delays.
Why Is the Classic Outside?
One of the Winter Classic’s biggest traditions is hosting the match outside. Even in the dead of winter, the game draws massive crowds, no matter the weather. True hockey fans, unfazed by the chill, turn out in droves to watch the event regardless of rain, snow, or sleet. Hosting the Classic outside pays tribute to the roots of the sport. After all, many of the kids who grew up to become hockey players got their start playing on frozen ponds and lakes. Plus, players in the NHL have been playing on outdoor rinks since the league started in 1954.
The weather can add an exciting element to gameplay. Unlike playing in an insulated arena where the rink is climate controlled for consistency, outdoor rinks are subject to the natural conditions of the area. This means players must contend with challenges like sun glare, softened ice on warmer days, and blustery conditions on frigid days. Accounting for the conditions encourages players and their coaches to evaluate their play strategy and use techniques they might not go for under standard conditions. Not only is this a fun challenge for players, but it’s exciting for fans to watch.
Winter Classic Stats and Popularity
In case you were wondering just how popular the Winter Classic really is, check out these rating stats:
- The Winter Classic is often the most-watched NHL game of the season. It regularly breaks viewership records, but its peak was in 2011 when it drew an incredible 4.5 million viewers in the United States.
- One of the most popular matchups ever happened in 2014 between the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs. This game was originally scheduled for 2013 but got postponed to 2014 due to the lockout. It still managed to sell out the stadium with 105,000 spectators.
- Between the U.S. and Canada, the 2014 game attracted 8.2 million viewers. It ended in a Toronto victory, with the Maple Leafs winning 3-2 over the Red Wings in a shootout.
- The Winter Classic is notorious for its excitement. Over half of the games played end with one goal being the deciding factor, while four of the games have gone into overtime and two have come down to shootouts.
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The Tradition of the Throwback Jersey
Besides playing in an outdoor arena, another major tradition of the Winter Classic is wearing throwback jerseys. During the game, participating teams wear old-school throwback jerseys to celebrate the history of the NHL. These retro-style sweaters are popular among fans. In some years, the players even go as far as using throwback equipment to further honor the league and their predecessors. Here’s what each team wore during the Classic:
In 2008, the Penguins wore the jerseys from their 1970-71 season as a third jersey. The Buffalo Sabres wore jerseys from their 1983-84 season. They also released a modernized version of the jersey in 2021.
The Detroit Red Wings paid homage to their origins as the Detroit Cougars. They wore jerseys styled from their 1926-27 season. Playing against them, the Chicago Blackhawks wore jerseys with designs from 1935 to 1936 with their logo from the 1948-49 season.
For the Winter Classic in 2010, the Philadelphia Flyers wore jerseys inspired by their 1973-74 season. They modernized their look with a modern number font and a black nameplate. These jerseys became their permanent road jerseys the next season. By comparison, the Boston Bruins wore a design inspired by the 1958-59 season jerseys. This design featured brown stripes and a logo taken from their 1948-49 season.
The Washington Capitals wore jerseys resembling designs from their 1974-75 season. Facing off against them, the Penguins wore 1967-68 season-inspired sweaters. They updated the look to feature their crest logo in place of the lettering on the original jersey, and they reversed its colors.
In 2012, the New York Rangers played the Philadelphia Flyers. The Rangers wore a traditional sweater design featuring a modern version of their 1926 crest logo, blue numbers, and red trim. The Flyers also went traditional. They wore an orange sweater with black numbers, an off-white trim, and striped shoulders, which was inspired by the design of a sock the players wore in 1980.
The Maple Leafs wore jerseys inspired by various decades in their team history. They were royal blue and included details from 1927, the 1930s, the 1950s, and the 1960s. Competing against them, the Red Wings dressed in red and white antique uniforms and had accents resembling their 1930s logo and 1920s wordmark.
During the 2015 Classic, the Chicago Blackhawks dressed in uniforms based on their 1957 jersey, which had red and black striping and tomahawk logos. In contrast, the Washington Capitals took a different approach to their uniforms. Instead of wearing a typical throwback jersey, they took inspiration from the history of hockey in Washington, D.C., wearing jerseys with a logo stylized to look like the Washington Monument.
In this match, the Montreal Canadiens wore jerseys based on their 1925-26 season, with an acknowledgment of their Stanley Cup win from the previous season. The Bruins also wore jerseys inspired by the 1925-26 season.
For 2017, the Blackhawks used the same throwback jerseys from their participation in the 2015 Winter Classic. Fighting against the Blackhawks, the St. Louis Blues dressed in uniforms based on the 1967-68 season.
Dressed in 1970s-inspired uniforms, the Sabres wore jerseys with the “Buffalo” word mark inspired by their old-school Buffalo Bisons throwbacks. This year, the Rangers dressed in uniforms based on the 1926-27 season.
Paying tribute to their 1930s uniform, the Bruins wore brown and gold jerseys with heritage materials. The Blackhawks dressed in black and white uniforms resembling their 1934 ensemble.
In 2020, the Dallas Stars dressed to pay homage to their teams in 1993-94 and 1945-55. Playing against the Stars, the Nashville Predators had uniforms that used colors from Nashville’s first minor league hockey team.
The St. Louis Blues wore uniforms inspired by their 1967-68 road jerseys. For the 2022 Classic, the Minnesota Wild paid homage to past Minnesota teams by wearing uniforms with red and green.
Borrowing from the 1925 Pittsburgh Pirates uniform, the Penguins plan to wear vintage white uniforms with black stripes and a gold “P.” The Bruins uniform features gold stripes, white text, and the original spoked “B” logo from 1949.
That’s everything you need to know about the history of the NHL Winter Classic. It’s a great event that brings hockey fans together every year. If you’re looking to celebrate all things hockey during this year’s Winter Classic, check out all the officially licensed sports Winter Classic apparel at Fanatics for the 2023 game. We also have sports collectibles, memorabilia, and more for all leagues.