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Sports Then and Now

A History of Outdoor Hockey

Posted on December 09, 2013 by Martin Banks

The sport of Hockey has its roots on the frozen ponds and lakes of North America, and many of today’s top players grew up learning the sport on local canals and other outdoor rinks. Invented by Canadians in the late 1700’s, and first referenced in print in 1799, the game had always been an outdoor sport. It wasn’t for almost another hundred years that Ice Hockey would first move inside, where it has largely remained ever since.

The first indoor game was held on March 3rd, 1875 in Montreal, Quebec at Victoria Skating Center, and was viewed as a novelty event. However, the indoor version of the game took off, and by 1920, Olympic Hockey was inside, although the 1924 Games were once again outdoors. International Championships would range between indoor and outdoor until the mid 1950’s, including an outdoor Gold Medal game in 1957 between Sweden and the Soviet Union, which boasted 55,000 people in attendance, a record that stood for 40 years.

The NHL has always been a strictly indoor league, but there have been a few notable exceptions. The first such game is probably the most curious, as the 1954 Detroit Red Wings accepted an invitation to play the inmates of the Marquette State Prison in a friendly scrimmage on a rink built by Warden’s mate Oakie Brumm. The Wings defeated the Marquette Prison Pirates soundly. So soundly no one remembers the final score, although it was 18-0 after the 1st period. The Wings even swapped a few players with the inmates to even it up a bit.

The NHL’s next foray into the outdoors was in 1991, with the LA Kings playing the New York Rangers in Las Vegas outside of Caesar’s Palace. Although met with some criticism, the game was a success and the Kings won 5-2. The air temperature ranged from the mid 80’s up to 95 degrees, yet the ice surface held up well, despite the concern. Being an exhibition on the grandest scale, it was more of a show than a game, being shown on Prime Ticket, and having a camera on goalie Kelly Hrudy’s mask. There was another exhibition scheduled to be played in North Carolina, but it was cancelled due to unsafe ice conditions.

The birth of the modern outdoor game came about in 2001, with the University of Michigan playing Michigan State in an outdoor battle dubbed “The Cold War.” Away from the typical metal roofing that they usually play under, the Spartans hosted the Wolverines in front of a record crowd of 74,544, and ended in a 3-3 tie. It was bitter cold, and featured several future NHL players such as Buffalo’s Ryan Miller.  A rematch was held in 2010 at Michigan’s “Big House,” and a record 113,411 watched Michigan crush the Spartans 5-0.

The NHL went back outside for the 2003 Heritage Classic, which featured the Montreal Canadiens and Edmonton Oilers. Temps reached a bitter -22 F with windchill, and Habs goalies Jose Theodore is remembered for famously wearing a knit cap over his goalie mask.

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The Habs won 4-3, but one of the main selling points was a MegaStars game played the day before by many alumni of both teams, such as legends Guy Lafleur, Mark Messier and Wayne Gretzky. The Heritage Classic is becoming a staple of Canadian outdoor hockey.

In 2008, the NHL introduced its first “Winter Classic,” pitting a young Sidney Crosby and his Pittsburgh Penguins against outdoor veteran Ryan Miller and the Buffalo Sabers. The Atmosphere was picturesque, as steady flurries made the arena look like a snowglobe.

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Both teams wore special “throwback” sweaters to give a nod to the heritage of their franchises and to the roots of the game. The Penguins would win 2-1 in a shootout, and it would kick off a successful run of outdoor Winter Classics that would become a shining point in the NHL’s marketing of the game.

The NHL is continuing its outdoor games with the Winter Classic, and has also introduced a “Stadium Series of 4 more outdoor games around the US.  The game plays well outside, and it brings a sense of nostalgia for those who’ve played on frozen ponds in their childhood. The NHL has tapped into that feeling, and is doing a great job bringing the game back outside.

Scott Huntington is a writer, blogger, and long-time hockey fan. You can also find him on Twitter @smhuntington and at

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