Praising the Stadium Series, the NHL's wilder outdoor game

It was the end of the KISS concert at Dodger Stadium in 2014, when the group hit the final bombastic notes of "Rock and Roll All Nite" and the pyrotechnics illuminated the palm trees near the hockey rink. That was the moment I fell in love with the bizarre, audacious spectacle that is the NHL Stadium Series.

Picture the Winter Classic as the nicest wedding you've ever attended. The Stadium Series is the after-party. Picture the Winter Classic as a Norman Rockwell painting. The Stadium Series is a black light poster with a flying saucer on it.

"The Winter Classic is more traditional, historic. It's got that touch of snow -- whether it's real or fake," Steve Mayer, the NHL's senior executive vice president and chief content officer, told ESPN.

"The Stadium Series is a little more modern. Colorful, graphic-oriented, progressive, interactive," Mayer said, entering into a brief word association mode, "nighttime, lighting, pyro ... let's go. It's where we do a lot of future thinking."

Mayer was speaking from Raleigh, North Carolina, the site of Saturday night's game at NC State's Carter-Finley Stadium between the Washington Capitals and the Carolina Hurricanes (8 ET, ABC and ESPN+).

It's the 13th edition of the Stadium Series. There have been 14 Winter Classic games, with the next edition scheduled for T-Mobile Park in Seattle in January 2024.

The Heritage Classic, the NHL's outdoor series held in Canadian venues, actually predates the Winter Classic. Its first edition was held in 2003 at Edmonton's Commonwealth Stadium, which is the site of the seventh Heritage Classic scheduled for October. There have been special edition outdoor games like the NHL 100 Classic and Centennial Classic in 2017, and those two melty 2021 outdoor games in Lake Tahoe during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Those other series have their singular charms. But none of them gave us California teams in outdoor hockey games or rinks inside military academies or NHL jerseys designed to be seen from space.

In other words, none of them are the Stadium Series.

The Stadium Series was, in some ways, born out of necessity.

The Winter Classic was packing football and baseball stadiums, so it wasn't a surprise that the NHL wanted to expand the outdoor program in the U.S. outside of New Year's Day -- and give it a different vibe.

"I think the success of the Winter Classic was why the Stadium Series was established," said Mayer, who joined the NHL in 2015. "Go back to that time: The Winter Classic was on fire. Everyone was talking about it. There was an interest to do more, but an interest to do something a little different."

But the Stadium Series' debut in 2014 was a direct result of the revenue lost during the 2012 lockout, which cut the 2012-13 regular season from 82 to 48 games.

Holding five outdoor games -- Los Angeles, Chicago, two at Yankee Stadium in New York and a Heritage Classic in Vancouver -- was a surefire way to create a river of new revenue, and the owners and players both signed off on it.

"When you get into markets like Vancouver and see the mittens and the toques and the scarves and everything, it's almost like having [another] NHL team with all the revenue that's created," John Collins, then the COO of the NHL, told me in 2013.

But another motivation for the games was to get more teams involved. By 2013, there had been five Winter Classic games but only eight teams were involved -- the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers had already played twice. Only two Western Conference teams -- the Original Six stalwart Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks -- had appeared in the Classic. The Stadium Series would provide more outdoor game opportunities to other teams and cities, while allowing the NHL to reuse some franchises outside of the Winter Classic.

"That's certainly the opportunity. To get to more markets sooner, and to get back to markets that worked," Collins told me in 2013. "Boston was a great experience. Philadelphia was a great experience. But if we're only doing one game a year, we're not getting back there in 10-15 years."

(In fact, it would be 13 years before the NHL hit Fenway Park again, with a visit to Gillette Stadium in Foxborough for the 2016 Winter Classic.)

The participants themselves are one of four reasons the Stadium Series rocks:

1. The teams

With the Hurricanes hosting the Capitals on Saturday and the Seattle Kraken hosting the Vegas Golden Knights next January, there are now only three teams that have yet to participate in an NHL outdoor game: The Arizona Coyotes, Columbus Blue Jackets -- seriously, CBJ vs. Pittsburgh at the Horseshoe has to happen -- and the Florida Panthers, whose ears perked up when commissioner Gary Bettman recently said the NHL was exploring an all-Sunshine State outdoor game with the Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning.

"We're really proud that we're almost there, where every single NHL team will have participated in an outdoor game," Mayer said. "Without the Stadium Series, we wouldn't have that."

The Stadium Series got weird right from the start in 2014: The Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings playing an outdoor hockey game at Dodger Stadium, complete with palm trees around the rink and KISS on levitating platforms. The New York Rangers were the away team -- per their contract with Madison Square Garden -- for two games against the New York Islanders and the New Jersey Devils at Yankee Stadium. The other Stadium Series game that year played the hits: The Penguins and the Blackhawks, two Winter Classic veterans, at Soldier Field.

It was one of six outdoor games in which the Blackhawks appeared from 2009 to 2019.

"I can laugh about it now. About how at one point the running joke was, 'Oh, the Chicago Blackhawks are playing? It must be an outdoor game,'" Mayer said. "There was a consistency of a few teams playing in these games. But they were participating in these games for all the right reasons: They were incredibly successful and drew big ratings."

The Kings returned to the Stadium Series in 2015 to face the San Jose Sharks at Levi's Stadium, home of the NFL's San Francisco 49ers. In 2016, the Minnesota Wild made their outdoor game debut against the Blackhawks at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, and the Colorado Avalanche played their first outdoor game against the Red Wings at Coors Field.

The Penguins and Flyers played a home-and-home Stadium Series duo of games in 2017 (Heinz Field) and 2019 (Lincoln Financial Field). Sandwiched in between was a game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Capitals at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Maryland. The NHL went military again in 2020 with the Kings and Avalanche at the Air Force Academy in Colorado, which happened right before the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Stadium Series returned in 2022 with an absolute party in Nashville between the Predators and the Lightning at the home of the Tennessee Titans. Please recall the "Outlaw Bikers vs. Canadian Tuxedos" battle during player arrivals.

"I think that what we've done in the last few years is try to share the wealth and open it up to more teams," Mayer said.

And more teams meant more distinctive locations.

2. The venues

I still think about that Dodger Stadium game. Not just because it gave us this iconic photo of Gary Bettman meeting KISS, but because of the audacity of its staging: Having volleyball players and deck hockey games on the field and embracing all that California kitsch inside of an iconic venue.

It was really the first time the NHL let its freak flag fly for one of these outdoor games. I'm not sure we get the giant cowboy boot at the Cotton Bowl or the "Ice Diamond" at Fenway without this game setting the surreal tone.

It was also the first event in the "outdoor game era" that was intended to be played at night. The 2011 Winter Classic between the Penguins and Capitals was shifted to the evening due to weather concerns. When the Hurricanes host the Capitals this weekend, it'll be under the lights in prime time.

There's another first for the Stadium Series in Raleigh: NC State students in attendance will enjoy the entirety of the game from the field, giving the whole thing a college sports vibe.

The Stadium Series has been played in four college stadiums, including the only two games the NHL has played at military academies, as well as five NFL venues and three MLB parks.

The first military academy the NHL approached was the United States Military Academy at West Point. But Michie Stadium was due to undergo renovations that didn't fit the NHL's timeline, so the league turned its attention to the Naval Academy in Annapolis instead for a 2018 game.

"That obviously was one of our more successful games," Mayer said. "Then we went to the Air Force Academy ... and we're still waiting on Army. That's still out there. At some point, we'd love to go. I just have no idea when."

(If the NHL is looking for a spot to get the Florida Panthers into an outdoor game and doesn't want to risk the Floridian climate, they seem like a natural fit for Army. Owner Vincent Viola is an Army grad who was nominated to be Secretary of Army during the Trump administration. Also, their logo is inspired by the Army's 101st Airborne Division patch.)

Both of those venues featured sharply dressed cadets. And fashion is a key part of the Stadium Series' appeal.

3. The jerseys

This is, perhaps, the greatest point of demarcation between the Winter Classic and the Stadium Series. Look no further than the Predators.

In 2020, Nashville played in the Winter Classic against the Dallas Stars. Their jerseys featured the team name in script across the chest inside a bright yellow stripe. Adidas, which helped create the jersey, said it had a "heritage aesthetic, featuring designs inspired by Nashville's rich hockey history and its passionate hockey fan base."

In 2022, Nashville hosted the Stadium Series. This time, their sweater had the word "SMASHVILLE" written in the same block lettering as an old concert poster, with a guitar pick in the middle.

"The object of the Winter Classic is to look back. That's what informs all of our design and storytelling," said Nic Corbett, director of sports marketing for Adidas. "When we look at the Stadium Series, it's all about the future. It gives us a chance to work with the teams and the league to really create some bold looks."

The NHL, led by executive vice president of marketing Brian Jennings, and Adidas have thrown every forward-thinking idea they could into the Stadium Series jerseys. There were metallic logos. There were logos that stretched from arm to arm, like the Capitals' "Weagle" jerseys this season. There were never before seen variations of classic jerseys: Remember the gold logo on that Penguins sweater?

The single greatest fashion show in Stadium Series history happened at Air Force Academy. The Kings wore a diagonal "LA" logo with little speed lines that made it look like it was rushing uphill -- maybe a little roller hockey, but hey, what do you think they play in SoCal? They also rocked metallic chrome helmets that became so iconic that the team used them again as part of their heritage jerseys in 2021.

The Avalanche, meanwhile, wore an "A" logo that mimicked both the triangular shape it modeled after Air Force's Cadet Chapel and the Rocky Mountains. Matty Merrill, director of design for Adidas hockey, called it "probably the largest hockey crest of all time on perhaps the largest hockey stripes of all time."

Corbett said the designers were also inspired by those who might be watching a game at the Air Force Academy.

"One of the bullet points that we had was that there's probably a graduate from the Air Force Academy on the International Space Station," he said. "And when that space station circles around that stadium in that day, we want that individual to be able to see the uniforms. We want them to be that bold."

Now that's bold.

4. Finally, the undersaturation?

Mayer remains in awe that the NHL produced five outdoor games in 2014.

"Now that I know how difficult these games are to put on, I have no idea how they pulled that off," he said.

Five is a bit much. Then again, a lot of NHL fans feel two are a bit much. Cries of "oversaturation!" have echoed since the past decade, leading directly to things like Blackhawks fatigue.

"Are there too many games? Should we just do the Winter Classic?" Mayer asked rhetorically.

His answer, unsurprisingly, is of course not. His justification is that, like politics, all NHL outdoor games are local.

"It's amazing here. Everybody is talking about this game," Mayer said. "Whether it resonates nationally or internationally like it used to ... maybe it doesn't. But in the local market, it kicks butt. And we see this every single time."

It's the same argument you hear the NHL make when it comes to the Winter Classic and the NHL All-Star Game: Maybe they don't dominate the conversation or draw the television audience that they once did, but if you're in town for one, it's like the Super Bowl.

"This market is outstanding," Mayer said of the upcoming NC State game. "I'm telling you: If we put another game up for sale, we'd sell it out as well."

Mayer also believes that there are so many more outdoor locations to conquer.

"I don't think there are too many venues we haven't visited and scouted," he said. "I always love the suggestions: 'We should play a game at Lambeau Field!' Every building is in play. There are just so many factors as to when and why. We want to spread the wealth."

But the Stadium Series could also offer the chance for the NHL to revisit some of its previous outdoor hits. The league has used the same U.S. outdoor venue only three times: Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Yankee Stadium in New York and Fenway Park in Boston.

"There are other buildings that we've gone to that we might go to again," Mayer said. "They're not off the table at all. We may revisit a few places in a creative way."

Creativity has been the essence of the Stadium Series. Unique venues. Bold fashions. Uncommon participants. It's only going to get weirder, and we're here for it.

"Some fans might think that we've done too many," Mayer said. "But we think there's value in doing them. So we're going to keep doing them."