As someone who has attended each Winter Classic since the first one on a snowy day in Buffalo in 2008, it has been interesting for me to see the evolution of the event. Here's a look back at the turning points for what has become the NHL's marquee regular-season event and spawned a host of lesser outdoor events while eclipsing the All-Star Game, draft, opening night and other moments on the league's calendar.
Buffalo, Ralph Wilson Stadium, 2008
Yes, the ultimate turning point in the game between the Buffalo Sabres and Pittsburgh Penguins was Sidney Crosby's shootout winner amid a small blizzard. And the images from that game -- players' faces turned skyward as the snow fell before the game, the snow-globe element that made the event such a treat to watch on television -- remain some of the most enduring of all the Winter Classics. But the real turning point was that it happened at all.
At the time, the NHL was still trying to figure out how to separate itself from the dismal 2004-05 lockout and reclaim a place among the Big Four pro sports in North America. Thanks to the audacity of then-COO John Collins, the idea of a big-time outdoor event went from drawing board to reality to a must-see and must-attend event in a short period of time. In many ways, this game marked a turning point in the league's vision and scope. It didn't stop an ill-advised lockout in 2012, but the game's profile has been forever enhanced thanks to this big gamble at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
Pittsburgh, Heinz Field, 2011
The game was delayed to the evening because of rain, and this Winter Classic became known for "The Hit," with the Washington Capitals' David Steckel clipping the head of Pens captain Crosby with a shoulder as both players headed up the ice late in the second period. Crosby never saw Steckel coming, and there is little evidence to suggest Steckel knew he was about to come into dangerous contact with the game's most important player. Crosby was doubled over in obvious discomfort as the second period came to a close, but he did start the third period.
Was that the hit that led to Crosby missing the rest of the 2010-11 season, the 2011 postseason and the beginning of the following season? Or was it a hard hit less than a week later delivered by Victor Hedman of the Tampa Bay Lightning? A combination of the two? Regardless, the Steckel hit and the reduced visibility, due to the rain and mist, mark the lowest point in Winter Classic history, even if the move to prime time did produce the highest U.S. television ratings for a regular-season game since 1975.
Philadelphia, Citizens Bank Park, 2012
This game was memorable on a number of fronts, including a wildly popular and emotional alumni game that featured Bobby Clarke and Eric Lindros, along with longtime Flyers favorite Bernie Parent. But the turning point, not just for the Winter Classic but maybe for his career, was the epic press briefing delivered by Philadelphia Flyers goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov. The well-traveled goalie offered the now-famous bad news/good news line that day, telling reporters the bad news was he was not starting for the Flyers against the New York Rangers, but the good news was the Flyers still had a chance to win.
The Flyers were not amused -- and even less amused when Bryzgalov went sideways a few months later in the playoffs. In many ways, it marked the beginning of the end for Bryzgalov as a Flyer and the NHL as a whole. The Rangers would go on to win the game despite a late penalty shot awarded to Philly's Daniel Briere, which prompted winning coach John Tortorella to suggest the fix was in to try to have the Flyers win, an observation that earned him a $30,000 fine.
Ann Arbor, Michigan Stadium, 2014
In hindsight, this game is as memorable for the biggest-ever crowd to watch an NHL game -- 105,491 tickets sold -- as for the Toronto Maple Leafs' shootout win over the Detroit Red Wings. The '14 Winter Classic was actually supposed to have been the 2013 Winter Classic, but the initial game was cancelled due to the owners' lockout that scuttled half of the 2012-13 season. The game would mark the first time a Canadian team was invited to take part in a Winter Classic, with Canadian teams previously involved in Heritage Classic events in Canadian locales.
Even though the Leafs were at the time (and continue to be) one of the least successful teams in the league, the relative proximity to Detroit, along with the history of two Original Six franchises, provided an obvious hook. There was significant interest in the game itself and the accompanying alumni events, which were held in downtown Detroit at Comerica Park at the behest of Red Wings owners Mike and Marian Ilitch.
The Winter Classic delivered on the ice, with the two teams trading goals in the final two periods before Tyler Bozak won it in a shootout for the visitors. One year and six days later, the Leafs would fire head coach Randy Carlyle, and this past summer, they installed longtime Red Wings coach Mike Babcock as the team's long-term answer to years of disappointment and dysfunction.
Washington, Nationals Park, 2015
Coming out of the lockout that scrubbed half the 2012-13 season, the NHL bombarded fans with six outdoor games in 2013-14. That caused a backlash, at least among some media, about the proliferation of the outdoor games and whether it was a straight-on cash grab. As a result, the attention around the game between the Capitals and Chicago Blackhawks was muted in some ways in the days leading up to the event. When all is said and done, though, the '15 Winter Classic might have been the best all-around event.
A picture-perfect day, terrific ice and a game that boasted a playoff feel reinforced that the league had made the right decision with the location and matchup. And how about the storybook ending scripted by former Chicago forward Troy Brouwer, who scored the winner with 12.9 seconds left to give the Capitals the win? The Blackhawks' effort did not go unrewarded, though, as they continued a trend that has seen four Winter Classic participants go on to at least the Stanley Cup finals the following spring. The Blackhawks won their third title in six years last June.