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Ranking NHL Stadium Series games based on venue, hype, style, competitiveness

Written by 
Published in Hockey
Saturday, 17 February 2024 04:36

What's the difference between the NHL Stadium Series and the Winter Classic, besides their spots on the calendar?

Steve Mayer, the NHL's chief content officer, has said there's an aesthetic difference between the two.

"The Winter Classic is more traditional, historic. It's got that touch of snow -- whether it's real or fake," he said. "The Stadium Series is a little more modern. Colorful, graphic-oriented, interactive."

But there's also a spiritual difference. The Winter Classic is usually marinated in nostalgia. Mayer said the Stadium Series -- in execution, venue and participants -- can be a bit more "progressive" by comparison.

"It's where we do a lot of future thinking," he said.

That thinking has produced some of the most memorable outdoor games in NHL history during the Stadium Series, which began in 2014 and continues this weekend at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ, as the New Jersey Devils face the Philadelphia Flyers on Saturday night (8 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN+) and the New York Rangers play the New York Islanders on Sunday afternoon (3 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN+).

But not every Stadium Series game has hit the bullseye, usually for reasons outside of the NHL's control.

Here's a subjective ranking of the Stadium Series games and their relative greatness. We've assigned a score of 1 to 10 in four categories for each outdoor game. There's environment, which covers the novelty of the venue and the elements that challenged teams during the game; there's hype, which covers the buzz leading up to the Stadium Series, as well as the allure of the teams involved; there's the game itself, and whether it was competitive, boring or rendered unwatchable by the conditions; and finally style, as we consider how good the teams looked in their Stadium Series gear.

We're counting down from 13 to 1, beginning with a trip to the State of Hockey:

13. TCF Bank Stadium (2016)
Minnesota Wild 6, Chicago Blackhawks 1 (17 points)

Environment: 5
Hype: 4
Game: 3
Style: 5

The Wild had lobbied the NHL for a Winter Classic for several seasons before getting a Stadium Series game at the home of the Minnesota Golden Gophers. It was a celebration of Minnesota hockey, including a North Stars alumni game held on the eve of the Stadium Series. Soul Asylum played! The fans spelled out "Let's play hockey!" before the game in the upper and lower deck. It snowed!

The Wild were in an interesting place when this game was played. They fired head coach Mike Yeo eight days before the Stadium Series, turning the bench over to interim coach John Torchetti. After looking like a lost season, their win against the Blackhawks was their fourth in a row. Torchetti would go 15-11-1 and the Wild would lose in the first round, as is tradition.

This Stadium Series edition was one of those outdoor games that meant a lot more to the fans attending it and the home team playing in it than it did to NHL fandom writ large. The home of Golden Gophers football isn't exactly iconic. Fans were getting a bit of Blackhawks fatigue, to the point where the 6-1 thumping the Wild put on them didn't even offer that much catharsis. Or a reason to stay invested as it was 3-0 just 23 minutes into the game.

The Wild took a really pedestrian route with their sweaters for this one, a bit of a throwback to the old home jerseys the Wild wore until about 2007, except this time they had wide white shoulders breaking up the design. The Blackhawks' sweaters were miles better, with interesting striping, a collar that shouted out the Chicago city flag and a black yoke around the top that the team said was "a visual representation of the city's nickname, the 'City of Big Shoulders.'" And there's nothing we like more than designers justifying aesthetic choices with historic minutia.


12. Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium (2018)
Washington Capitals 5, Toronto Maple Leafs 2 (18 points)

Environment: 4
Hype: 3
Game: 3
Style: 8

To help create more buzz for the Stadium Series, the NHL began a partnership with the U.S. military to hold outdoor games at service academies. That immediately led to speculation that the New York Rangers' long gestating game at West Point could come to fruition. Instead, it led to an odd matchup between the Capitals and Maple Leafs, whose "rivalry" consisted of one first-round playoff series in the previous season, albeit a tightly played one.

This game carried a lot of meaning locally for Washington fans and personally for Capitals owner Ted Leonsis, whose father served in the Navy. But the stadium's capacity (34,000) was much smaller than other NHL outdoor venues, and it didn't have much of their unique character, either.

The Capitals had a 3-1 lead after the first period and a 5-2 lead after two periods. The third period will be remembered for a power outage at the stadium with 10 minutes remaining that suspended play for nearly 20 minutes. Because of that delay, the conclusion of the game was moved from broadcast to cable television in the U.S.

One thing this game got right were the jerseys. The Capitals rocked dark blue sweaters that had "CAPS" in lowercase letters under the three stars of the D.C. flag. The Maple Leafs went full yeti, wearing white helmets, white gloves, white pants with a white logo on the front of a white jersey. The only things breaking up the snowdrift were blue letters and numbers, some outlining on the logo and two stripes across the chest. Easily one of the most memorable Stadium Series fits.


T-10. Carter-Finley Stadium (2023)
Carolina Hurricanes 4, Washington Capitals 1 (20 points)

Environment: 7
Hype: 3
Game: 4
Style: 6

Tom Dundon had wanted an outdoor game for the Hurricanes since taking over as owner in 2018. He had to wait a little longer as the COVID-19 pandemic postponed the team's game at N.C. State University, but the wait was over in 2023.

While not an iconic location, Carter-Finley Stadium did provide ample room for epic tailgating, which is the Hurricanes fans' specialty. The Capitals were a good choice for an opponent, not only as a current division rival but throwing back to the days of the old Southeast Division. Unfortunately, the Capitals' biggest star -- Alex Ovechkin -- missed the game. He took leave from the team to attend his father's funeral in Moscow.

Shorthanded and spiraling down the standings, the Capitals were beaten convincingly by the Hurricanes to the delight of Carolina's fans, which included a standing room only student section near the rink.

Stylewise, the Capitals went bold with their look, going with the "Weagle" alternate logo stretched from arm to arm. The Hurricanes went with a black jersey with a red and black logo that seemed more "regular-season third jersey" than bananas Stadium Series sweater.


T-10. Lincoln Financial Field (2019)
Philadelphia Flyers 4, Pittsburgh Penguins 3 (OT) (20 points)

Environment: 4
Hype: 4
Game: 6
Style: 6

This game was the back end of a "home and home" between the Penguins and Flyers that actually spanned three seasons. They met at Heinz Field in 2017 and then didn't meet for the rematch until 2019 at the Linc, home of the Eagles.

It's rare that the game is better than the environment at the Stadium Series, but that was the case here. The game was held in the rain -- sometimes heavy rain -- which led to frequent tending to the ice with squeegees. The aesthetics of the stadium weren't the most memorable design: some kind of a large gold and orange keystone logo covering a sea of rubber mats.

But hey, it did have Gritty ziplining to the field in a glowing jersey, so not a total loss.

Speaking of losses, it looked like the Flyers were headed for one until 16:56 of the third period, when James van Riemsdyk scored a power-play goal to cut the Penguins' lead to 3-2. Jakub Voracek tied the game with 20 seconds left. Claude Giroux won it in a rare overtime for outdoor games.

One saving grace for this game was the jerseys, which are straight fire. The Flyers' orange sweater with a black logo might have served as the template for the Devils' jerseys for the 2024 Stadium Series. The Penguins' incredible "Pittsburgh Gold" logo on a black jersey is considered one of their best looks for an outdoor game.


9. Yankee Stadium (2014)
New York Rangers 7, New Jersey Devils 3 (21 points)

Environment: 7
Hype: 7
Game: 3
Style: 4

How long did the NHL want to play a game at Yankee Stadium? That was actually the original plan for the Winter Classic before the first installment of that annual game was held at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo.

In 2014, the plan finally came together for the five-year-old "new" Yankee Stadium. The idea was to have all three local teams play at the Stadium, with the Rangers facing the Devils and then the Islanders. Notice we didn't say "hosting," as the Rangers had to be the designated road team as part of Madison Square Garden's tax-exempt status agreement with New York City.

There was plenty of hype for the first outdoor game in New York City and the first NHL game at Yankee Stadium. But the event itself was defined by climate and chaos. The game's start was delayed by an hour because of sun glare. It was also brutally cold with some snowfall during the second period.

The chaos part? The 10 total goals scored to set an NHL outdoor game record -- since tied twice -- including six straight Rangers tallies that chased Devils goalie Martin Brodeur. The Rangers overcame a 3-1 deficit before the rout was on. If you liked goals, it was a great day. If you liked the Devils, maybe not so much.

The Rangers' jerseys, which they also wore for their game against the Islanders a week later at Yankee Stadium, had a diagonal metallic "New York" that reminded some fans of what their AHL affiliate the Hartford Wolf Pack used to wear. But it was a stark look and a good twist on their traditional jersey. Plus, Henrik Lundqvist gets bonus points for his pinstripe pads. The Devils, meanwhile, broke out their "Christmas tree" jerseys they used to wear back in the 1980s -- and then played accordingly.


8. Falcon Stadium (2020)
Los Angeles Kings 3, Colorado Avalanche 1 (22 points)

Environment: 5
Hype: 5
Game: 6
Style: 6

This game was one of the most thrilling outdoor games the NHL has ever put on, with Tyler Toffoli completing a hat trick in the last minute of play to give the Kings the lead and the win. His timing was appreciated by many fans who had just arrived to the game during the third period.

We can't talk about the Air Force Academy game without talking about what was happening on the ground. Thousands of fans didn't see large portions of the game, and many left before its conclusion, thanks to a horrific traffic mess that turned 45-minute journeys from Denver into four-plus-hour expeditions. Air Force officials would later blame the mess on "car accidents and ill-prepared drivers." But scores of fans were investigating refund policies based on how long it took for them to get into the game.

This contest had a lot going for it. There was a flyover the likes of which you'd expect from the Air Force. There were cadets seated on the walkway to the rink, so players shared high-fives with them. It felt like 17 degrees with the wind chill. At 6,621 feet above sea level, it was the highest altitude the NHL had ever played a game -- and the players felt that struggle for oxygen.

The uniforms ... wow. The Kings managed to simultaneously have the worst Stadium Series sweaters -- with a diagonal "LA" that evoked a roller hockey team -- and the greatest Stadium Series accessory with their chrome helmets. The Avalanche meanwhile had a jersey with the largest crest ever created by Adidas for the NHL: a giant white "A" that had an outline of Burgundy-colored Colorado Rockies cut into it. It was as bold a design as one could imagine for an outdoor game, like Saul Bass was commissioned to create a hockey sweater.


7. Levi's Stadium (2015)
Los Angeles Kings 2, San Jose Sharks 1 (23 points)

Environment: 8
Hype: 6
Game: 7
Style: 2

It's always interesting when these outdoor game spectacles have stakes. The Sharks and Kings weren't just two teams meeting in an outdoor game. They were archrivals, battling for a playoff spot in the Western Conference after meeting in the playoffs in the previous postseason. There were 70,205 packing the home of the 49ers to witness a battle between NorCal and SoCal in 57-degree weather. At the time, it was the third largest crowd ever to watch an NHL game.

The game was even given its own reality show series: "Road To The NHL Stadium Series" on EPIX, now known as MGM+.

Once the puck dropped, the competition was intense. The Kings took the 2-1 victory on a third-period Marian Gaborik goal that goalie Jonathan Quick made stand up.

The Sharks and Kings both used a bold three-stripe motif for their jerseys. The Sharks jersey was moderately successful, going from teal to white to black. The Kings jersey went from gray to black to white ... and then right into white pants, making it look like someone tried to erase half of their uniform.


6. Heinz Field (2017)
Pittsburgh Penguins 4, Philadelphia Flyers 2 (24 points)

Environment: 6
Hype: 6
Game: 6
Style: 6

Beaver Stadium at Penn State University remains the NHL's white whale for a true Keystone State showdown between the Penguins and Flyers. It was touted as a possibility before the NHL opted to run it back at Heinz Field, which hosted the 2011 Winter Classic.

A bright yellow recreation of the Fort Pitt Bridge framed the rink on the field. The fans weren't put off by the return visit, as this was one of the highest rated Stadium Series on television.

The game's biggest narrative was Sidney Crosby's return to a stadium where one hit interrupted his career. In 2011, Washington's Dave Steckel hit Crosby in the head, and it took the better part of two years for him to recover. Sid picked up a measure of redemption by scoring the game's first goal.

Overall, it was a close affair between two bitter rivals that had a one-goal margin in the third period. But anything the Flyers did was undermined by some shaky goaltending by Michal Neuvirth, who gave up four goals on 29 shots.

Stylistically, this was a solid contrast: The Penguins rocking gold jerseys with "city of champions" patches on the shoulders and innovative numbering and lettering vs. the Flyers comfortably playing the heels' role with a black jersey augmented by wide orange bands around the arms.


5. Yankee Stadium (2014)
New York Rangers 2, New York Islanders 1 (25 points)

Environment: 8
Hype: 5
Game: 6
Style: 6

After the scorefest against the Devils, the Rangers ran it back a week later against the Islanders at Yankee Stadium in a game that couldn't have been further removed from their blowout over New Jersey. This 2-1 grind, which was won on Daniel Carcillo's goal 4:36 into the third period, was played at night with temperatures dropping into the single digits due to the wind chill. The puck bounced like a racquet ball. If you wanted a battle against the elements in an outdoor game, this was your jam.

It was a boisterous crowd despite the temperatures and lack of scoring fireworks. While Rangers fans had the numbers, it felt like a more even split between the sides than at the Rangers vs. Devils game.

We touched on the Rangers' jerseys earlier. The Islanders Stadium Series look was actually one of their best -- comparatively speaking -- essentially taking the "NY" stick logo from their crest and making it the primary logo. The colors and striping were great, too. It's a look one yearns for when seeing the 2024 Islanders wearing Edmonton cosplay to their Stadium Series game.


4. Nissan Stadium (2022)
Tampa Bay Lightning 3, Nashville Predators 2 (26 points)

Environment: 7
Hype: 3
Game: 8
Style: 8

The outdoor party finally came to Nashville as the Predators hosted their first outdoor game, and the Lightning played in their first one ever. As iconic venues go, Nissan Stadium isn't exactly one of them. But the city's imprint on the game was unmistakable, including on the pregame attire for the teams: The Lightning showed up in cowboy denim while the Predators wore outlaw biker gear.

The game was a feisty affair that featured two fights, one that got interesting when Filip Forsberg cut the Lightning lead to 3-2 late in the third. But Tampa Bay hung on.

Now, the score for the jerseys is probably going to be a contentious one. The Lightning's jerseys with "BOLTS" diagonally over a blue lightning bolt are striking. But it's the Predators' "SMASHVILLE" jerseys -- that word, broken up on two lines with a guitar pick in the middle -- that caused the biggest stir. What can we say: We dig them.


3. Soldier Field (2014)
Chicago Blackhawks 5, Pittsburgh Penguins 1 (28 points)

Environment: 10
Hype: 8
Game: 3
Style: 7

We struggled with the environment score here. That's not knock on Soldier Field, which is as worth a Stadium Series venue as you'll find in a hockey-obsessed city. But the 2014 battle between the Blackhawks and the Penguins was played in unplayable conditions.

There was a heavy, driving snowstorm throughout the game, causing snow to pile up on the ice. No matter how many layers of clothing fans applied to their bodies, the chill still crept in. Battling the elements should be part of the story and the heart of the challenge of outdoor games. To that end, the Soldier Field Stadium Series game was ideal, but this was a game where completing fundamental hockey plays was a trial instead of fans witnessing an assemblage of stars whipping the puck around in pristine conditions.

So, we'll give the environment a perfect score and the game itself a less than perfect score. The hype score is reflected by the fact that this was only the second outdoor game for Chicago. They would appear in four more over the next five seasons.

From a jersey perspective, the Blackhawks went back to black with a look that resembled the jerseys they wore from 1996-2007 (a.k.a. the Eric Daze era). But the chrome-upscaling of their traditional logo really made the colors pop. The Penguins' sweaters weren't anywhere on the level of their Winter Classic looks: They were essentially just their normal jersey with a chrome finish on the logo and black shoulders. That said, the style rating gets a significant bump from Marc-Andre Fleury's Pittsburgh Steelers-inspired goalie mask.


2. Coors Field (2016)
Detroit Red Wings 5, Colorado Avalanche 3 (29 points)

Environment: 8
Hype: 6
Game: 8
Style: 7

Coors Field? Gorgeous. One of the most aesthetically pleasing baseball stadiums in America. What wasn't expected for this showdown between the Avs and Wings was the temperature: a balmy 65 degrees at gametime, defying expectations for the venue. The players wore the customary toques during warmups, as unnecessary as they were.

The game was one of the better Stadium Series, a back-and-forth affair that saw three lead changes. The final one came with one minute left in regulation, as Brad Richards scored to put the Wings up 4-3.

The musical acts were The Fray and Andy Grammer, just to put a timestamp on this.

The jerseys featured the Avalanche suiting up in a white sweater with a logo reminiscent of the Colorado Rockies; and the Red Wings looked sharp in a red jersey with a bold white swatch "under a redesigned 'D' logo, updated in its design to connect more directly with the iconic modern day Winged Wheel logo," as the team put it. Detroit has had a lot of good outdoor looks, and this is no exception, especially with their white gloves.


1. Dodger Stadium (2014)
Anaheim Ducks 3, Los Angeles Kings 0 (31 points)

Environment: 10
Hype: 10
Game: 4
Style: 7

We cannot stress enough, the importance of the 2014 Stadium Series game at Dodger Stadium to what these outdoor spectacles have become for the NHL. And not just because the event gave us this iconic photo of Gary Bettman meeting KISS.

This was really the first time the NHL let its freak flag fly for one of these games. There were volleyball players and deck hockey games on the field. Embracing all manner of California kitsch iconography, there were even palm trees near the rink. And of course four guys in face paint bellowing "I want to rock 'n roll all night" while pyro fired off into the Los Angeles sky.

That all of this was happening inside a hallowed baseball stadium was even more jarring. Sure, the NHL had been to Fenway and Wrigley, but one expects to see ice there. Not so much in Chavez Ravine.

Alas, the game couldn't live up to the hype. A spirited first period saw the Kings post 20 shots, but the Ducks scored twice, eventually winning behind a Jonas Hiller shutout. The jerseys were almost there, with their "chrome" logo gimmicks. The Ducks' burnt orange base was outstanding but they opted for the "Webbed D" logo instead of the Mighty Ducks one that would have made this an instant classic. The Kings brought back their big crown, which looked great, but slapped on a drab gray sweater that was maybe a little too reminiscent of L.A. smog.

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