Which Winter Classic has produced the purest outdoor bliss? We rank them from weakest to best.
The eighth Winter Classic is upon us, and it’s a doozie of a matchup. Foxboro, Mass., will host the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens, placing hockey’s greatest rivalry outdoors. Yes, please. Given the history of bad blood between the two squads, the 2016 Classic immediately has a chance to go down as one of the best.
Which Winter Classic is the king of them all so far? It’s time to rank all seven, from worst to best. An important note: quality of hockey isn’t paramount. Indoor NHL rinks with standardized ice conditions treat us to higher-quality hockey every night of the week. So a good Winter Classic is about entertainment value above all else, and while good hockey helps, the entertainment can also include intangibles. Let’s begin.
7. Heinz Field, Pittsburgh, 2011
Capitals 3, Penguins 1
The 2011 Classic was arguably the most anticipated. It treated us to Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin at the peak of their stardom. The revolutionary documentary series, HBO’s 24/7: Road to the Winter Classic, took us inside the NHL experience like never before, from dressing rooms to road trips. And yet, the game yielded a ho-hum 3-1 victory for the visiting Caps. It was forgettable.
Except…it wasn’t. Dave Steckel caught Crosby with a hit to the head, concussing him. Crosby sustained another blow to the head four days later on a hit from Tampa’s Victor Hedman, and the second-impact syndrome ended what was on track to be Sid’s best season ever. He had a scintillating 32 goals and 66 points in 41 games that year. The 2011 Classic thus leaves a bad taste in the mouth.
6. Nationals Park, Washington, D.C., 2015
Capitals 3, Blackhawks 2
By most accounts, this game was a thriller. The Blackhawks rallied from a 2-0 deficit, and the Caps’ Troy Brouwer won it with 12.9 seconds left. But there was something stale about the setup. The Hawks and Caps both had already played in the Classic, and they have no rivalry whatsoever. The allure of an outdoor game was also arguably watered down by the Stadium Series at this point. The result was the lowest TV ratings of any Classic.
5. Fenway Park, Boston, 2010
Bruins 2, Flyers 1 (OT)
Oddly enough, the least-attended Winter Classic produced the worst sight lines. The ice surface was reduced to a speck for some of the Fenway faithful. In hindsight, it made sense. Fenway’s baseball sight lines are famously sketchy, so why would the hockey view be any better? The TV experience was fine, at least, and gave us the first home-team win in Winter Classic history, courtesy of Boston’s Marco Sturm in overtime.
4. Citizens Bank Park, Philadelphia, 2012
Rangers 3, Flyers 2
The 2012 Classic gave us the only Jan. 2 edition to date, as New Year’s Day fell on a Sunday and the NHL didn’t want to clash with the NFL. It was a cryin’ shame to see Ilya Bryzgalov on the bench after his scene-stealing turn in 24/7, but we still got a heckuva game, highlighted by this penalty shot save by Henrik Lundqvist with 19.6 seconds remaining:
3. Wrigley Field, Chicago, 2009
Red Wings 6, Blackhawks 4
The Wrigley game marked the first Winter Classic held at a baseball stadium, adding a wrinkle of novelty. It treated us to some major star power on both sides, including Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Nicklas Lidstrom, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. And, like no other Winter Classic before or after, it yielded G-O-A-L-S. Neither team came out tentative and we got 10 in total. No other Winter Classic in history has bested five goals between its combatants.
2. Ralph Wilson Stadium, Buffalo, 2008
Penguins 2, Sabres 1 (SO)
The inaugural classic featured snowy, blustery weather, a massive crowd and a signature finish. Crosby, a year-and-a-half away from hoisting his first and only Cup, delivered in the clutch with a shootout winner against Buffalo stopper Ryan Miller. Check it out. And yes, I deliberately picked a handheld fan version…just to drop you right into the experience:
1. Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor, Mich., 2014
Maple Leafs 3, Red Wings 2
105, 491 fans
The 2014 Winter Classic had it all. The Big House in Ann Arbor hosted the largest crowd in Winter Classic history by a country mile. Fans of the game were extra hungry for the outdoor spectacle after missing out on it the year prior due to the lockout. We saw two Original Six rivals, including the first Canadian squad in the Winter Classic. The game was tight enough to require overtime and a shootout. And, best of all, it was WINTER out there. The Big House had the snowiest, coldest conditions in the event’s history.
Really, the 2014 Classic was perfection. Well, unless you had to drive home from the stadium.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin