History of the event

The very first hockey games were played in 19th century in Canada. Obviously, they were played outdoors. Frozen lakes, artificially built hockey rinks, freezing temperatures accompanied by heavy snowfall, hockey was as close to nature as possible. Although the first official games were played indoors, it took many years before the newly established sport became a staple in sports arenas. Throughout the years, the arenas became more complex, more modern. 125 years since the first hockey game, the game itself returned where it started – outdoors. Outdoor games have now become an annual tradition. Since 2001, more than 100 hockey games were played outdoors. Aside from teams from the NHL, many other, lesser known teams all around the globe have held outdoor games. The games were attended by tens of thousands, thousands or hundreds of fans, who, in a way, honored hockey’s history and its beauty by watching these games. The Colorado Avalanche will honor hockey’s heritage during the 2015/16 season by playing the Detroit Red Wings at the Coors Field baseball stadium in Denver. On this occasion, the Eurolanche Fan Club and the editors at Eurolanche.com bring you an overview of the history of outdoor hockey games.

First steps

The idea of an outdoor hockey game featuring NHL teams was presented several decades ago, but only as part of the preseason. The real breakthrough was achieved with the coming of the new millennium. The very first modern outdoor game was between two teams from the now-defunct Central Collegiate Hockey Association. On October 6, 2001, the gamebetween the Michigan State Spartans and the Michigan Wolverines was attended by 74,554 fans, which stood as an absolute record in attendance for a hockey game for several years after. In November 2003, the NHL introduced the Heritage Classic concept. Despite the temperature falling below -30 degrees Celsius, 57,167 fans attended the game between Edmonton Oilers and the Montreal Canadiens. The tickets to the event were sought after worldwide. For the very first time in NHL history, the game counted as a regular-season game. The game was preceded by an Alumni Game, the game’s lineups being highlighted by the legendary Wayne Gretzky. Richard Zednik scored the game’s game winner for Montreal; Jose Theodore manned the winning side’s crease.

Heritage Classic 2003

The “outdoor experience” experiment continued during the 04/05 lockout, when Doug Gilmour and Steve Staios organized an exhibition game for ten thousand fans. Until 2008, two similar games were played – one was played under the head of the WCHA, the other was held in Switzerland as a celebration of the 100th game between the SCL Tigers and SC Bern.

The big boom

The positive reception of the Heritage Classic made the NHL make up a concept of outdoors games, which would feature multiple teams and would be played in regular intervals. It only took the league 5 years to introduce a concept unrivaled by any other sport. The achieved success influenced the whole hockey world – since January 1, 2008 until the start of the 2015/16 season, a total of 121 official outdoor games were played, which averages to a game per month during that time.

On January 1, 2008, the Buffalo Sabres and Pittsburgh Penguins featured in the first Winter Classic game. Since then, the event was annually held on New Year’s Day, except for 2013, when the season was delayed by a lockout. The game featured matchups between the Red Wings and the Blackhawks, the Flyers and the Bruins, the Capitals and the Penguins, the Rangers and the Flyers, the Maple Leafs and the Red Wings, and the Blackhawks and the Capitals. As opposed to other outdoor events, the Winter Classic game is only played on New Year’s Day and is the season’s most watched game. It’s also heavily marketed. Alumni Games became a traditional part of the Winter Classic festivities, with the games being played a day before the actual game - on New Year’s Eve. The Heritage Classic remained, but in a limited, albeit exclusive form. Only 3 Heritage Classic games were played in 12 years. Only Canadian teams can featured in the Heritage Classic, which makes it a little more exclusive than the Winter Classic.

Winter Classic 2014
Worldwide popularity

Between the first two Winter Classic games, no other outdoor hockey games were played anywhere in the world. It was the event’s success that made other teams from all around the globe wanting to organize similar games. In January 2010, the KHL All-Star Game between Team Yashin and Team Jagr was played in front of 25,000 fans. In the same year, Slovakia visited Switzerland to play an exhibition outdoor game against the hosts, while teams from Sweden and Hungary also played outdoors. The attendance in Sweden, exceeding the 30,000 mark, came closest to the trend established by the NHL.

In 2010, the outdoor hockey games trend reached more countries and leagues. American collegiate leagues began playing outdoors on a regular basis, while women’s hockey teams also started to play outdoors. Aside from lower and lesser known leagues, the concept found its way to Austria, where the league’s outdoor game attended by 30,000 fans established a record in league attendance. Outdoor games broke records on a regular basis. Record books had to be rewrote everywhere teams started to go back to their roots.

During the first days of 2011, fans in the Czech Republic, as well as those in Mexico had the opportunity to witness an outdoor game. The Czech fans had the chance to attend an outdoor game featuring the Czech top-tier league’s teams Pardubice and Brno, which was ultimately attended by 17,140 fans. 3,000 fans in Mexico came to watch Mexico’s junior team square off against their counterparts from Bulgaria as part of the D-3 Division World Junior Championship. The first outdoor games were played in Finland, while Sweden’s second-highest league also organized an outdoor game, which was attended by more than 17,000 fans. The Swedes also continued their tradition of holding an outdoor game between the country’s top-tier teams. In the end, it lasted 4 years.

The popularity grows

2011 saw a large number of outdoor games, mostly because of the Whalers Hockey Fest, which organized five collegiate outdoor games during a single week, although attendance was fairly low. The following games between Whalers and Bruins alumni, as well as those from of Flames and Canadiens were considerably more attractive for fans. The “outdoor season” was highlighted by the second Heritage Classic, which was played for the first time since 2003. The Flames and the Canadiens played in the resurrected event.

Hockey’s 2012 started with the 5th annual Winter Classic between the Flyers and the Rangers. Several days later, the AHL got to play their first pair of outdoor games. The event was attended by more than 65,000 fans. The year’s outdoor game number grew thanks to several collegiate outdoor events. Within a week, college teams played a total of seven games, some of which had an attendance just under 40,000. Similar games were played Ontario, where the men’s and women’s games were attended by hundreds of fans. Despite the lower attendance, smaller communities like this continued to hold outdoor games. In February, two outdoor games were played in Finland. The first was played as part of the country’s top-tier league, the second saw Finland play Russia as part of the Euro Hockey Tour. The remainder of the year saw outdoor games played in Russia’s second-tier VHL, two games in Croatia as part of the multinational EBEL league and the traditional outdoor game in Sweden. Croatia entered the record books, as the game between Medvescak Zagreb and Olimpija Ljublana was held in an amphitheater. The game had an attendance of 7,130, which was the maximum capacity of the said amphitheater.

A romantic game at a Croatian amphitheater.

Because the start of the 2012/13 season was delayed by a lockout, the NHL didn’t hold an outdoor game for the first time since 2008. Other leagues had the opportunity to come out of the NHL’s shadow. The German league held its first outdoor game in 2013, with games also taking place in Slovenia (as part of the EBEL) and France, where the game was attended by 20,000 fans. Finland and Sweden also held outdoor events. The rest of the year was filled out by outdoor games organized by the AHL and other minor or collegiate leagues. The AHL organized a pair of games, with an exhibition game between Rochester Americans and Buffalo Sabres alumni also being played. The NCAA held their first series of outdoor games, while the end of the year saw the OHL hold two outdoor games, which were attended by more than 50,000 fans in total.

The big comeback

2014 saw a decrease of outdoor games, but also saw the return of the NHL’s Winter Classic. The game between the Red Wings and the Maple Leafs was supposedly attended by exactly 105,491 fans, which would be a world record that would surpass the record from 2001. The official statistic, though, only listed 104,000 fans, which is still a NHL record. The league presented their third outdoor games concept called the NHL Stadium Series. The new project was designed for teams, which wanted to hold an outdoor game, but didn’t exactly fit in with the Heritage Classic or Winter Classic concept. The Stadium Series organized a total of 4 games, which were each attended by roughly 50,000 fans. Also, the Canucks and Senators played the third Heritage Classic game in March 2014, which brought the total for NHL outdoor games in 2014 up to six. Other games were again played in the Russian VHL, Finland, Switzerland, Slovenia (but this time played between local clubs), while the ECHL held its first outdoor game.

The decline in outdoor games continued in 2015, as only 11 were played worldwide. Three of them were played in the NHL – the Winter Classic and two Stadium Series games. It was at that time the speculations of an outdoor game featuring the Avalanche began, but the league ultimately chose to give the Avalanche an outdoor game during their 20th anniversary season. Aside from four minor and collegiate leagues in North America holding outdoor games, the VHL held its third outdoor event in row, while Austria and Germany (setting a world record for attendance of a European league with 51,125) also holding outdoor games. The QMJHL organized its first outdoor game.

2014 NHL Stadium Series

The first outdoor game of the 2015/16 season is set to be the Winter Classic featuring the Bruins and the Canadiens, followed by the Stadium Series game between Minnesota and Chicago, and Colorado and Detroit. The NCAA will also hold an outdoor game, which will feature the Denver Pioneers and the Colorado College Tigers and will also be played at Coors Field a week before the Avalanche’s game with the Red Wings.

Countries, where an outdoor game was played:

USA, Canada, Switzerland, Russia, Hungary, Sweden, Finland, Austria, Czech Republic, Mexico, Croatia, Slovenia, Germany and France

An overview of every NHL outdoor game

November 22, 2003 – Heritage Classic
Edmonton Oilers – Montreal Canadiens 4:3
Game-winning goal: Richard Zednik
Former Avs players: Patrice Brisebois 0+2*, Jose Theodore 34/37*, Ryan Smyth*
Attendance: 57 167

January 1, 2008 – Winter Classic
Buffalo Sabres – Pittsburgh Penguins 1:2 SO
Game-winning goal: Sidney Crosby
Former Avs players: Jocelyn Thibault (backup goalie, didn’t play)
Attendance: 71 217

January 1, 2009 – Winter Classic
Chicago Blackhawks – Detroit Red Wings 4:6
Game-winning goal: Brian Rafalski
Former Avs players: Brad Stuart**
Attendance: 40 818

January 1, 2010 – Winter Classic
Boston Bruins – Philadelphia Flyers 2:1 OT
Game-winning goal: Marco Sturm
Former Avs players: Ian Laperriere, Daniel Briere*, Matt Hunwick*, Derek Morris (0+1), Johnny Boychuk
Attendance: 38 112

January 1, 2011 – Winter Classic
Pittsburgh Penguins – Washington Capitals 1:3
Game-winning goal: Eric Fehr
Former Avs players: Semyon Varlamov 32/33*, Scott Hannan, Matt Hendricks, Maxime Talbot*
Attendance: 68 111

February 20, 2011 – Heritage Classic
Calgary Flames – Montreal Canadiens 4:0
Game-winning goal: Rene Bourque
Former Avs players: Cory Sarich 0+1*, Jarome Iginla 0+1**, Alex Tanguay 1+1
Attendance: 41 022

January 1, 2012 – Winter Classic
Philadelphia Flyers – New York Rangers 2:3
Game-winning goal: Brad Richards
Former Avs players: John Mitchell 0+2**, Maxime Talbot 0+1*, Daniel Briere*
Attendance: 46 967

January 1, 2014 – Winter Classic
Detroit Red Wings – Toronto Maple Leafs 2:3 SO
Game-winning goal: Tyler Bozak
Former Avs players: Jay McClement, Kyle Quincey
Attendance: less than 104 000

January 25, 2014 – NHL Stadium Series
Los Angeles Kings – Anaheim Ducks 0:3
Game-winning goal: Corey Perry
Former Avs players: Teemu Selanne 0+1, Francois Beauchemin**, Daniel Winnik
Attendance: 54 099

March 2, 2014 – Heritage Classic
Vancouver Canucks – Ottawa Senators 2:4
Game-winning goal: Cody Ceci
Former Avs players: Craig Anderson 29/31, Brad Richardson
Attendance: 54 194

January 1, 2015 – Winter Classic
Washington Capitals – Chicago Blackhawks 3:2
Game-winning goal: Troy Brouwer
Former Avs players: žiadni
Attendance: 42 832

February 21, 2015 – NHL Stadium Series
San Jose Sharks – Los Angeles Kings 1:2
Game-winning goal: Marián Gaborik
Former Avs players: Scott Hannan
Attendance: 70 025

*players, who came to Colorado after the game
**player, who’s currently in Colorado

10 most-attended hockey games in history

1. 104 173 - Michigan Wolverines vs. Michigan State Spartans in 2010
2. less than 104 173 - Detroit Red Wings vs. Toronto Maple Leafs in 2014
3. 77 803 - Germany vs. USA in 2010
4. 74 554 - Michigan State Spartans vs. Michigan Wolverines in 2001
5. 71 217 - Buffalo Sabres vs. Pittsburgh Penguins in 2008
6. 70 205 - San Jose Sharks vs. Los Angeles Kings in 2015
7. 68 111 - Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Washington Capitals in 2011
8. 62 921 - Chicago Blackhawks vs. Pittsburgh Penguins in 2014
9. 57 167 - Edmonton Oilers vs. Montreal Canadiens in 2003
10. 55 031 - Wisconsin Badgers vs. Michigan Wolverines in 2010*

*also counted is the game between Wisconsin’s women’s team and the Bemidji State Beavers
**the game between the Soviet Union and Sweden, which was played in March 1957 as part of the World Championship in Moscow (the last tournament to be played on natural ice) ranks 11th

*Photography sources: oilers.nhl.com, mirror.co.uk, thehistoryblog.com, thepinkpuck.com
NHL on Nov 11, 2017: "Eurolanche is the world's largest Colorado Avalanche fan club."