Thursday, January 1, 2015

The History of the NHL Winter Classic

The NHL's 7th Winter Classic takes place today, Thursday, January 1st, at Nationals Park, home of the Washington Nationals of Major League Baseball.

The original inspiration for the Winter Classic must be given to The Cold War, an outdoor game held at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Michigan when Michigan State University and the University of Michigan, then of the CCHA, battled to a 3-3 tie in front of 74,544 fans, an attendance figure which no doubt raised eyebrows with the powers that be across the NHL.

Cold War 2001
The Cold War

The first to to embrace the concept in the NHL was the Edmonton Oilers, who hosted the Montreal Canadiens on November 22, 2003 in what was dubbed The Heritage Classic at Commonwealth Stadium, home of the CFL's Edmonton Eskimos.

Theodore toque Canadiens
Jose Theodore famously wearing a toque during the Heritage Classic

In addition to the game itself, which counted in the NHL's regular season standings, the event drew a great deal of publicity for the MegaStars Game, an exhibition game between Oilers legends from their 1980's dynasty versus a team of Canadiens legends from their dynasty of the 1970's. To date, that event is the one and only time Wayne Gretzky has taken part in an NHL old-timers game of any kind, and something he has publicly stated will be the only time. Such was the importance of the event in Canada, that Mark Messier received special permission from the New York Rangers to take part in the game despite being the only player still active in the NHL.

Heritige Classic MegaStars game
Mark Messier congratulates Guy Lafleur following the MegaStars game

The Winter Classic began in 2008 when the Pittsburgh Penguins faced off against the host Buffalo Sabres at Ralph Wilson Stadium, primary home of the Buffalo Bills of the NFL. The game was a tremendous success on many levels, as 71,217 fans set an NHL attendance record, the weather cooperated with a picturesque snowfall during the game and the most visible player in the league, Sidney Crosby, scored the game winning goal in the shootout for Pittsburgh.

One other element of the game was an outstanding success - the use of throwback jerseys by both the Penguins and Sabres. The Penguins revived their powder blue road jerseys from the 1970-71 season while the Sabres opted for their original home white jerseys from the same 1970-71 season.

2008 NHL Winter Classic
Crosby scores the game winning goal in his light blue throwback jersey

The Sabres jerseys were very well received as the club was presently wearing their controversial "Buffaslug" jerseys at the time as fans longed for a full-time return to the team's original look. An updated version of their classic blue jersey was the first result, being introduced the following season and became the team's primary jersey two seasons later.

The Penguins, fueled by the popularity of stars Evgeni Malkin, and especially that of Crosby, adopted the 2008 Winter Classic jersey as their alternate jersey the following season and sold them by the thousands.

The use of throwback and retro styled jerseys at the Winter Classic has remained, with the Chicago Blackhawks hybrid style of a 1935-36 jersey mated with a 1948 logo taking on the Detroit Red Wings, who employed the jerseys originally worn by the Detroit Cougars in the franchise's first season of 1926-27. The Blackhawks jerseys continued to live on, with the addition of a secondary logo on the shoulders as the club's third jersey for the next couple of seasons.

The 2009 Winter Classic at Wrigley Field

In 2010, the Philadelphia Flyers, whose jerseys haven't changed all that much since their inception, stripped away many of the modern additions to their jerseys and reverted to a simpler style based on their 1970's jerseys, including the revival of the contrasting color nameplate.

The contrasting nameplates had their origin in the 1970's when the Flyers only had one set of white nameplates made up in the days when teams had to add names to their jerseys for national TV games. The Flyers Winter Classic jersey was a white version of their current orange third jersey, and when it was promoted to the primary jersey for 2010, the white Winter Classic jersey was revived as the Flyers new road jersey and remains in use five seasons later.

The Boston Bruins also went the hybrid route in 2010 and created a striking jersey that used the 1958-59 jersey template done in the brown and gold colors the Bruins wore during their first decade mated with the crest from their first use of the famed spoked "B" logo in 1948. Additionally, the crest and numbers were done in a retro felt material, which only enhanced the retro effect that much more.

2010 Winter Classic jerseys Pictures, Images and Photos
The 2010 Winter Classic held at Fenway Park

For 2011 at the Pittsburgh Steelers Heinz Field, both the host Penguins and the Washington Capitals produced special jerseys. The Penguins have gone back to their inaugural season for inspiration by using their first jersey's original template and unique number font, but with the navy and light blue colors reversed. They then decorated it with a an original and unused version of their skating penguin logo, a thinner penguin wearing a winter scarf. Again, this jersey lived on beyond the Winter Classic, being used as an alternate through the 2012-13 season.

The Capitals also returned to their roots, reviving their original star spangled red, white and blue jerseys used from 1974 until 1995. This jersey still remains in use as an alternate for Washington.

Aside from the jerseys, this game is best remembered for being postponed until the evening for more favorable weather conditions, only to have it plagued by rain which affected play more than any other game, and for the collision which left star Crosby concussed, an injury which was compounded by another hit shortly thereafter which caused him to miss months of action.

 photo CapitalsPenguinsWinterClassic.jpg

The 2012 Winter Classic was the second appearance for the Flyers, who hosted the New York Rangers at Citizens Bank Ballpark, home of the Philadelphia Phillies MLB team. With so few styles to choose from in their past, and still wearing their first Winter Classic jerseys, the Flyers created a brand new jersey with a retro feel. This jersey had simple, classic hockey styling, the use of a contrasting nameplate and was topped off with keystone shaped patches which housed the captain's "C" and assistant captain's "A's". A season and a half after the Winter Classic, the Flyers resurrected this style as their alternate jersey beginning with the 2014-15 season.

The Rangers went the same route, creating a cream colored jersey with visual striping cues from their past topped off with an old version of their shield logo, which complimented the Flyers similar effort quite nicely.

Flyers Rangers Winter Classic 2012 photo FlyersRangersWinterClassic2012.jpg

One interesting story to arise out of the 2012 classic was the early guess work done by fans as to what the teams' jerseys would look like. Once such concept was a very professional effort in which the Flyers jerseys were based on the first NHL team to call Philadelphia home, the Quakers.

 photo Flyersconcept.jpg

Created far enough in advance and with such a high degree of creativity and skill, counterfeit manufacturers overseas put the concept into production well in advance of the announcement of the Flyers actual jerseys, which ruined any chance the Quakers inspired design had of being put into production had Philadelphia actually been considering such an idea.

Originally scheduled for January 1, 2013, but not played due to the ongoing NHL lockout at the time, the 2014 Winter Classic set a world record for attendance at a hockey game with an official total of 105,491 at "The Big House" on the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor. The host Red Wings opted for the faux-back route, creating a new jersey with retro styling. Unique features of this style were the captain's "C" and "A's" being on the sleeves inside diamond shapes, as the franchise had used in the past, and the retro styled number font.

The main criticism of the Red Wings jerseys in the unnecessary use of "DETROIT" over the iconic winged wheel logo.

One new aspect of the 2014 game was the Red Wings opponent, the Toronto Maple Leafs, the first Canadian team to play in the Winter Classic, also wearing a colored jersey. This resulted in a color on color matchup, which looked great on TV against the white ice and through the falling snow.

 photo WinterClassic2014.jpg

While Toronto's jersey is an attractive one, it did disappoint somewhat, as the Maple Leafs had already worn a virtually identical style previously, that being the occasion of the 65th Anniversary of Maple Leaf Gardens in 1996-97 when a throwback dating from the arena's first season in 1931 was worn twice. The only difference between the two was the white shoulders.

Those jerseys were produced in a special edition, limited to just 1,931 jerseys and was one of the most desirable and collectable jerseys in the hobby, which we feel has had the luster taken off of it's limited nature now that it has been remade in large quantities, even if the new variation has differences such as white shoulders and collar with laces on the front.

Of note, there is often a legends game in conjunction with the Winter Classic, and in 2014 the Red Wings hosted two such games, and for the first time the teams used a different style for the legends game than for the regular season or the Winter Classic. For the first game the Alumni Showdown, players wore a revival of the white jerseys worn by Detroit for the 2009 Winter Classic, based on the 1927 Detroit Cougars sweaters, while Toronto's legends wore copies of their 1975-1992 jerseys.

 photo BerensonskatesagainstTorontosBradMarsh.jpeg

For the second game, Toronto wore their same style, but Detroit's legends wore a red jersey, the reverse colors of the 2009 Winter Classic jerseys worn in the first legends game, a jersey which never existed in the 1920's since teams did not have separate "home" and "road" styles until the NHL expanded and team;s jersey colors began to be duplicated.

For a player to be on the roster for the second game for the Red Wings, a player needed to have won a Stanley Cup, and individual NHL award or have been enshrined into the Hockey Hall of Fame, making the red jersey truly a badge of honor for those fortunate enough to have worn one.

 photo FetisovandChelios2014AlumniGame2.jpg

Today's host team, the Washington Capitals, are making their second Winter Classic appearance. Having not only worn their 1974-1995 jerseys during their previous appearance on New Year's Day, they are still wearing their 2011 Winter Classic throwback jerseys as an alternate, necessitating a new design for today's game.

Rather than reviving their 1995-2007 blue and black "screaming eagle" jerseys, the Capitals created a new faux-back look, using design elements from their own history, such as the use of stars and the word "Capitals" across the front. They also looked to the history of jerseys worn by previous teams based in Washington prior to the arrival of the NHL, such as the large "W" on the front and the stripes on the sleeves as seen in the 1930's, with the "W" having some modernization, such as making the peak in the center resemble the Washington Monument.

 photo Capitals2015WinterClassicjersey.jpg

The Chicago Blackhawks had the opportunity to go with either the white or black version of their virtually unknown, gorgeous art deco jerseys from their early days, revive the 1930's to 1950's barberpole jerseys worn during the 1991-92 season or create a faux-bac of their own, but took a rather disappointing route by using the jerseys based on their 1957 jerseys, which is all too similar to their current white jerseys, with the main differences being the use of one color numbers, a lace-up collar and their crossed tomahawks secondary logos below the sleeve numbers over the arm stripes. In all, not enough of a difference from their current jerseys to feel like it was worth the trouble.

 photo Blackhawks2015WinterClassic.jpg

Even worse, a Chicago sports bar created a mockup of a Blackhawks Winter Classic jersey to promote a jersey giveaway before the official release, which was a much more exciting faux-back jersey than what Chicago actually went with.

 photo Blackhawks2015WinterClassicleak.jpg

Today's video section is a look at the history of the Winter Classic in advance of today's game in Washington D. C.

Shop for 2015 NHL Winter Classic fan gear at

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