Winter Classic one for the ages

By David Mullen

Outdoor hockey? In Dallas? Texas?

What was once unimaginable took place in earnest on January 1 when the Dallas Stars faced off against their new nemesis — the Nashville Predators — in the Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic appropriately played at the 88-year-old Cotton Bowl at Fair Park. 

Played in front of 85,630 hockey enthusiasts of all ages, the Stars and Dallas represented old school hockey well.
Photos by William Skipworth

It just would not have felt right if it was played at Jerry World.

“This is quintessential Texas: bringing Texas and hockey together,” said NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. Horses, sheep, steers, pig races and turkey legs aren’t often associated with NHL hockey. Texas and hockey fans do share a common bond of drinking cold beer and plenty was flowing. Obviously for some, New Year’s resolutions can wait until the next day or the next year. 

After two periods of penalties, penance, punishment and petulance, the Stars became as slick as the temporary Cotton Bowl surface and exploded like a nova early in the third frame and held on for a 4-2 victory. 

Played in front of 85,630 hockey enthusiasts of all ages, the Stars and Dallas represented old school hockey well. It was the second largest attendance at an NHL hockey game, only to be outdone in 2014 by a crowd of 105,491 at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. I bet they didn’t serve corny dogs on the concourse.

 During the Dallas game, Bettman announced the location of the 2021 Winter Classic. “The Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic is about taking hockey back to its outdoor roots — and there is no better place to celebrate the incredible strength surrounding our game than in Minnesota,” said Bettman. “The Minnesota Wild organization and their fans in the Twin Cities and across the state have been anxiously awaiting the opportunity to host the NHL’s New Year’s showcase and we are thrilled to be bringing next year’s game to Target Field [in downtown Minneapolis].” 

Minneapolis is the former home of the Stars. The Minnesota North Stars moved to Dallas for the 1993-94 season. When the Stars came south, the only popular ice rinks in town were part of office and shopping complexes like the Galleria and the Plaza of the Americas. 

The Wild actually play in St. Paul, but in this case, as opposed to Arlington, it is close enough and the venue personnel will know what they are doing.  

The NHL’s Winter Classic was the second largest attendance at an NHL hockey game, only to be outdone in 2014 by a crowd of 105,491 at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Both teams wore splendid throwback sweaters as a tribute to the history of the NHL game, albeit a short one in Dallas and Nashville. Dallas does have a hockey legacy in Dallas and at Fair Park, when the Fair Park Coliseum was home to the minor league Dallas Black Hawks and later the fledgling, and poorly named, Dallas Freeze of the Central Hockey League. 

In 1962, the Dixie Flyers of the Eastern Hockey League were the first team to take the ice in Nashville. Later, the Nashville South Stars, a feeder team to the North Stars, played for two seasons. The minor league Nighthawks, Knights and Ice Flyers also played in the Music City.

When the puck was dropped at the 50-yard line, er, center ice at 1:04 p.m., it was 55 degrees with overcast skies preventing natural glare. Perfect conditions for an outdoor hockey game. According to the National Weather Service, it was 48 degrees and raining in Nashville at game time. 

The Predators fans came out in droves, putting some Tennessee money into Texas pockets. “There are more Nashville fans here,” Bettman said, “than can fit into Bridgestone Arena [which seats 17,159 for hockey in downtown Nashville].”

“Dallas loves a big event,” said Stars president Brad Alberts. “We were worried about selling tickets.” The game sold-out at a premium price in hours after becoming available and the after-market prices were staggering. 

The stars were not just on the ice. The staff at Fair Park were professional, friendly and accommodating. There were no visible in-stadium issues. Traffic was bad, parking was expensive and some access areas were clogged, but that is not foreign to the home of the State Fair of Texas. An Uber ride from Oak Lawn to the Cotton Bowl was $12.50.

At the conclusion of the game, both clubs shook hands in a ritual normally reserved for the end of a Stanley Cup playoff series. The Stars then skated as a team toward the fans and raised their sticks in salute. Hockey is great that way. And when it is played outdoors, in front of a raucous and appreciative crowd, tradition becomes even more appreciative.