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Hockey Heads Outside in the Latest Winter Classic

Hockey Heads Outside in the Latest Winter Classic

The weather on New Year’s Day in New England was ideal for being outside, but hardly for playing hockey. It was no matter for fans, though, who were treated to a brilliant atmosphere, an exciting match won by the host Boston Bruins, and what was a brilliant example of the power of the “crossover” in sports marketing.

The Winter Classic had its genesis in 2008, the first match being played in Buffalo, New York, and has continued to be played around the New Year since. It draws strongly on the traditional powers of the National Hockey League, and often features a matchup of teams from the “Original Six,” the league’s first half-dozen franchises. Meant to evoke hockey’s beginnings as a more casual sport, something to be played on frozen pond, the game has been a fine example of how the league has paid tribute to its long and storied history and indeed the origins of the game itself. Usually played at a football stadium, with attendances approaching, or even exceeding 100,000 (most NHL arenas hold about 20,000 fans), the matchup in Boston is somewhat different, as Fenway Park, the home of the Boston Red Sox, took center stage.

Despite the unseasonably warm weather, nearly 40,000 fans packed into the hallowed baseball stadium, and enjoyed the host Bruins pulling out a clutch victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins. To mark the occasion, which was the first time that the game was to be played in Boston since 2010, the Bruins involved a host of players from their legendary Stanley Cup-winning teams of the 1970s, including John Bucyk and Bobby Orr, as well as more modern players like Zdeno Chara, who captained the team to the title in 2011. They also cannily made a nod to the Red Sox’s recent seasons of success, with Jason Varitek and Tim Wakefield joining the hockey players on the ice for the ceremonial puck flip.

Tradition played a big role in the match, of course, given the Bruins’ long history, but there was also a more clever side on display in the way that the game was marketed. Both Boston, with the Red Sox, and Pittsburgh, with the Pirates, have deep histories in baseball as well as hockey, and both teams arrived for the game dressed in baseball uniforms. While it’s not been uncommon in previous editions of the Winter Classic for teams to don either vintage jerseys or something that’s limited in nature — in support of the country’s armed forces, for example, this was the first time that such a direct nod to another sport has been paid.

The players were also all to eager to get in on the act as well, with Penguins goalkeeper Casey DeSmith donning catcher’s gear and his opposite number, Bruins ‘keeper Linus Ullmark displaying a pair of vintage baseball cleats. The player to make perhaps the biggest impression, however, was Bruins star David Pastrnak. The Czech winger hardly comes from a baseball hotbed, but for the Classic, he had a custom pair of skates and stick made, heavy on baseball motifs. The stick included such details as the stadium’s famous hand-operated scoreboard and the Green Monster, the left-field wall, and the passion of Boston’s fans helped make it a huge hit on social media.

Indeed, all of this proved a smash success, especially given that Fenway Park was built in 1912, and has seen an innumerable amount of baseball’s very best grace the field. Said Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan, “It gives our team a chance to tip our caps to all the great players and the great teams that have played in this stadium.” A Massachusetts native, the game had special resonance for Sullivan, with both teams taking the ice alongside specialized team logos done in the pattern of a baseball diamond. “I still get chills when I walk into Fenway Park; it’s just a really unique place,” he added.

And that unique history has helped to get the best from what was another hugely successful Winter Classic for the NHL. Next year’s game will present another challenge entirely, as the league’s two newest franchises, the Seattle Kraken and the Las Vegas  Golden Knights, will square off. But for now, the NHL and two of its leading teams have shown how a holistic approach to a city’s sporting culture and history can pay big dividends.

Header credit: Maxence Bouniort