For as long as there’s been hockey in Dallas, fans in the Great White North have scoffed. How can you have Canada’s game—the stuff of frozen ponds and backyard rinks—in Texas? You can’t skate on a football field!
Except you can. Since 2008, the NHL has put on the Winter Classic every New Year’s Day, putting mostly teams from the East Coast and the Midwest into such outdoor venues as Gillette Stadium, Notre Dame Stadium, and Fenway Park (a separate series, the Heritage Classic, features exclusively Canadian teams and stadiums). Only 11 of the NHL’s 31 teams have been featured in the game, and this January 1, the Dallas Stars become the twelfth, taking on the Nashville Predators at the Cotton Bowl in what will also be the southernmost edition of the Winter Classic.
While the Stars average more than 18,000 fans per game in their usual home, the American Airlines Center, they sold more than 80,000 Cotton Bowl seats mere hours after tickets went on public sale in August. Equal parts novelty and spectacle, the Winter Classic also typically gets American TV ratings that are almost on par with the Stanley Cup Final, having started around the same time college football began moving its biggest games away from New Year’s Day. Here are seven things to know about the Stars, hockey in Texas, and the Winter Classic.
1. A (very) brief history of the Dallas Stars
If you’re the sort of fan whose favorite sports are football and college football, here’s the TL;DR on the Stars. They’re the state’s sole NHL team, moved from Minnesota in 1993. Led by such all-time greats as Mike Modano (who entered the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2014), Brett Hull, Joe Nieuwendyk, and goaltender Ed Belfour, they won the Stanley Cup in 1999, and fell just short in 2000. Then the Mavs got good and hockey went back to being just for hockey fans, especially after former Stars and Rangers owner Tom Hicks defaulted on his loans.
2. And how are they now?
Complicated question. Since Tom Gaglardi, a Canadian with East Texas ties, bought the team in 2011, the Stars have still mostly disappointed, with just two playoff appearances. Their young captain, Jamie Benn, who was a rookie in 2009, led the NHL in scoring in 2015 and had an MVP-caliber season one year later. Now thirty, he’s played for six head coaches, including the one-season return of Stanley Cup winner Ken Hitchcock in 2017. Last year was the Stars’ first under Jim Montgomery, whom general manager Jim Nill plucked directly from NCAA hockey power Denver University despite Montgomery’s lack of NHL coaching experience.
Montgomery’s Stars knocked off the favored Nashville Predators before falling to eventual Stanley Cup champions the St. Louis Blues in the 2019 playoffs, setting up high expectations for this season. Instead, they started 1-7-1 (that third number is for overtime or shootout losses), and Stars Twitter quickly got the knives out for Montgomery, Nill, and possibly themselves. Then the team reeled off fourteen wins in sixteen games, and everything was great!
3. Just kidding
On December 10, the Stars were 17-11-3, and ready for their Winter Classic close-up. On that day, Jim Nill called a press conference. The team was firing Montgomery, because of, the GM said in a statement, “unprofessional conduct inconsistent with the core values and beliefs of the Dallas Stars and the National Hockey League.” Nill went on to say that Montgomery’s “material act of unprofessionalism” was not related to other recent NHL incidents involving racist language and abusive behavior by coaches (including former Stars head coach Marc Crawford), and, as Naila-Jean Meyers of the New York Times reported, also did not involve “a criminal investigation, any abuse of current or former players, or another employee of the team.”
The incident remains a mystery (for now), and Montgomery was replaced on an interim basis by Stars assistant and NHL coaching lifer Rick Bowness (he’s previously head coached five teams, though none since 2004). The change happened just in time to become the opening scene for the official NHL Road to the Winter Classic documentary series.
4. It’s gonna be a hot one
We all know Dallas can have actual winter, which is also why it’s never been the most attractive bowl game destination (compared with, say, Miami Beach or Pasadena). But it does indeed look like the southernmost Winter Classic will be the warmest Winter Classic, with an expected high of 52 degrees.
The NHL puts a lot of work into its refrigeration system, but should the weather affect the ice surface to the point where it’s unplayable or less than safe, there are contingencies. If necessary, the game could be moved to a later start time or even be postponed until January 2. Should the game be played in poor conditions, there are also unique rules: three years ago in St. Louis, the possibility existed of the Blackhawks-Blues game ending with a shootout after just two periods (yup, there’s three in hockey). The teams can also switch which net they are shooting at more frequently, should one end of the ice be better than the other.
But the ice surface and the quality of play is not what this game is about. It’s all about the atmosphere. In some ways, the players are as much a part of the audience as the fans are—getting to play in the Winter Classic is as big a treat as watching it. It’s a spectacle. To wit:
5. It’s not just the dogs that are corny
Naturally, in addition to what is already there, the Winter Classic will have State Fair-themed games and attractions, including live animals (what, no Bevo or Sooner Schooner?) and ranch-themed decor around the rink. The game’s logo is a belt buckle. And while Stars-Predators is a good game just for hockey reasons, it’s also a matchup the NHL couldn’t resist for musical reasons. Hockey fans in Texas were not amused when the first act announced was Nashville duo Dan and Shay, which seemed like both an uninspired choice and a sop to the visiting team. Then Midland got added for the pregame show, providing, as the Dallasnews.com’s Dan Singer drily noted, “a slightly edgier complement.”
6. What else to watch for
The Stars, who were not a good offensive team last year, are still led by Benn and winger Tyler Seguin, as well as the explosive Alexander Radulov. This year they’ve added more scoring in the form of veterans/former rivals Corey Perry and Joe Pavelski (previously of the Anaheim Ducks and San Jose Sharks, respectively). But they are best known for strong defense (led by John Klingberg and Finnish phenom Miro Heiskanen, who just turned 20 in July) and goaltending (starter Ben Bishop and better-than-a-backup Anton Khudobin).
Non-hockey fans are typically flummoxed by offside and icing, but they’re really pretty simple. The internet is your friend.
Overtime? Don’t ask. (Okay, fine: overtime is five minutes, played three-on-three—instead of five-on-five—for maximum offensive potential. If no one scores in that, they have a shootout. And both teams get one point just for making it to overtime. And then none of these things happens in the playoffs. Simple, right?)
There probably won’t be any. Fights are increasingly less common in the modern NHL, and even more rare in a Winter Classic, where the league is trying to present its most family-friendly face, and the players on both teams are more mutually happy to be there than out for each other’s blood. The Stars don’t have any players with more than one major penalty (that’s five minutes, as opposed to two for less serious infractions) this season, though Nashville’s Austin Watson is third in the NHL with four.
7. Having this game is a huge thing for the Dallas Stars and Texas hockey history.
Yes, there is a such thing as Texas hockey history … and lots of it. The Stars Winter Classic jersey pays tribute to the logo of the Dallas Texans, the state’s first hockey team, which began play in the forties. Since then there’s been a ton of hockey, albeit mostly minor league, in not just Dallas, Fort Worth, and Houston (where Gordie Howe and his sons famously played for the Aeros), but everywhere from Amarillo to Laredo. In the nineties, Texas had more pro hockey teams than any place in the United States. The teams remaining in 2020 are mostly at the junior level: the North American Hockey League has teams in Amarillo, Odessa, Corpus Christi, and North Richland Hills, while the El Paso Rhinos have won four championships (the Thorne Cup) in the Western States Hockey League. The Stars’ AHL affiliate the Texas Stars also remains in Cedar Park (along with the Rampage in San Antonio, which is the St. Louis Blues’ top farm team).
The Stars are the patriarchs of Texas hockey, not just at the pro level, but when it comes to kids playing recreational hockey. Their role in supporting and operating local rinks and leagues is even deeper than the relationship between professional baseball and Little League, or MLS and youth soccer. Typically, the Winter Classic features multiple events on the outdoor ice—why go to all that trouble for just one game?—usually involving minor league or college teams, as well as an alumni game. The Stars have opted for something more ambitious: a four-day, national Lone Star invitational tournament for both youth and adult teams that will keep hockey at the Cotton Bowl through January 5 (weather permitting).
Now Houston just needs an NHL team.