It’s official. On Jan. 1, 2020, the Dallas Stars and Nashville Predators will square off in the 2020 NHL Winter Classic at the Cotton Bowl. The matchup provides a great storyline as well as plenty of common themes to build on, leaving the door open to a world of potential.
From the outside hockey world, there was confusion. Why a southern market like Dallas? Wouldn’t it be too hot in DFW on New Year’s Day to have a real “Winter Classic feel?” Why let a team that has missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs in eight of the last ten seasons host such a monumental event? Sure, the Chicago Blackhawks need a break from being involved, but why the Stars?
And though Dallas Stars fans were excited upon hearing the news, there was a cautious enthusiasm weaved into the organization. How will the team market the event? Will they be able to sell out the stadium and put on a good look to the rest of the NHL? Could this be another staple in proving the city as a legitimate hockey environment, or will it cause a backtracking?
All in all, there was approval for taking the Winter Classic out of the typical lull that included Chicago, Detroit, New York, or Boston. But that approval came with speculation. Is Dallas really the best answer?
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Not only did the debate rage on about the Stars’ worthiness, but another significant question arose: who would Dallas play?
In years past, all Winter Classic information, including location and participating teams, would be announced together at some point in the months leading up to the actual event. So, starting the announcement off by only revealing that the Dallas Stars would be hosting at the Cotton Bowl left things wide open for interpretation by Stars fans and the rest of the NHL community.
Who would provide a fun and exciting matchup? Should the Stars bring in the Minnesota Wild and add a new chapter to an already-heated rivalry? What about doing a 1999 Stanley Cup Final rematch and welcoming in the Buffalo Sabres? Could the Detroit Red Wings be a good choice? What about a team from out west?
The opportunities seemed endless when considering the big decision. Choosing an opponent would have a significant effect on ticket sales, marketing campaigns, as well as TV ratings, so it proved to be a worthy challenge.
And on Friday afternoon during an open Q-and-A interview session at NHL All-Star Weekend, Bettman announced the NHL’s final answer: the Nashville Predators.
There’s no better matchup that they could have chosen. The Stars and Predators will bring a new perspective to one of hockey’s cherished traditions and have the potential to bring an entirely new air to it.
“It couldn’t be a cooler experience and it’s something that I’ve always wanted to do,” said Stars goaltender Ben Bishop. “And I’m not gonna lie; I don’t think when I signed here that it was going to be one of the things that could happen. But, I think it’s great news. It’s great news for the city of Dallas and the hockey fans here. I think people will get to see how good the fans are here. I’m just really excited.”
The thing about Dallas and Nashville that many people’s brains draw to first is the southern relationship. Neither team has ever competed in an outdoor game before, whether Winter Classic or Stadium Series. The Dallas Stars are in their 25th season in the NHL while the Predators are in their 20th year. Both are very much considered non-traditional markets in the hockey world and are still trying to establish themselves as legitimate hockey communities near the same level as Detroit, Chicago, and Boston.
And both are closer than you might think. The Predators have qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs in seven of the past ten seasons, including the last four in a row. It doesn’t look as though this year will be any different, either, as they sit tied for first place in the Central division with 64 points. As a result, the Predators have established themselves a solid following.
In a city where sports fans either have Tennessee Titans football or Nashville Predators hockey to follow, the Preds have found a way to establish a passionate and intimidating fan base. Bridgestone Arena is considered one of the louder and more challenging arenas to play in around the NHL, and that’s largely due to the consistent fan presence.
Meanwhile, the Stars have only been to the postseason in two of the past ten seasons. They’ve been through three head coaches in the past three seasons, find a way to fall just short of the postseason wall in most seasons, and always seem to be lacking one or two critical pieces.
And yet, they will play host to the Classic. Why is that? Well, because they always know how to make things fun and interesting. Their games keep fans on the edge of their seats as the Stars weave an intricate and enticing story on the ice.
At the moment, Dallas sits in control of the first wild card spot with 52 points and is in position to make a playoff push this year. That obviously comes with more grit and energy as well as a few potential tweaks to the lineup, but the opportunity is there.
And if they do punch their ticket to the postseason, there’s a good chance that the Stars and Predators could meet up in the first or second round. Considering these two teams have been quietly attempting to build a rivalry with each other since divisional realignment in 2013, a playoff series would only add another powder keg to the mixture.
The 2020 Winter Classic is a chance for two star-studded rosters to go at it with each other. Some of the most well-known players in the sport, including Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, John Klingberg, Filip Forsberg, P.K. Subban, and Pekka Rinne, will get a chance to go toe-to-toe on one of the NHL’s biggest stages.
It’s also an opportunity to capitalize on building the non-traditional markets. Considering the game features two southern teams, there’s plenty of potential themes to build on in order to generate interest. Barbecue, country music, the Texas State Fairgrounds, one of the most iconic football (which is very much a southern-tied sport) stadiums in the world, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day in DFW. The opportunities are endless.
Two dedicated fan bases will have the chance to show off their fandom to the hockey world. When coming from a non-traditional market, it’s fair to say that there are very few fair-weathered fans in either organization. In order to be a Stars or Predators fan, there’s a need for heavy investment. While you might meet a handful of Blackhawks or Red Wings fans that know little to nothing about their “home team,” most Stars and Predators fans will probably be pretty knowledgeable.
This matchup also centers around one of the more evenly-matched Central division rivalries currently brewing. Since the NHL realigned in the summer of 2013 and the Stars and Predators were pitted against each other in the Central, it’s been a fairly even bout.
The Dallas Stars own a 13-11-2 against the Nashville Predators since the 2013-14 season. On the flip side, the Predators are 13-9-4 against the Stars. Since 2013-14, the Predators have outscored the Stars 78-76 in 26 games against each other. Those are narrow margins across the table.
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The 2020 Winter Classic will give Stars fans a chance to put on a grand show for the hockey world as everyone takes it in on NBC. Predators fans are close enough to where making a New Year’s trip won’t be considered a hassle. And when the result is a chance to watch your favorite hockey team play in their first-ever outdoor game on a massive league stage in a historic football stadium, the trip seems entirely more worth it. It’s hard putting a price on that kind of experience.
And that’s what the Dallas Stars and the NHL are tasked with doing: creating an experience like no other. Hockey fans have become bored with the Original Six look that the Winter Classic has encompassed over the past decade and want a change. The TV rating hit a 2.5 during the 2014 Winter Classic but has since dropped to a 1.9. The 2020 Winter Classic can help in bringing that line back up if they do it the right way. What is that correct way? That’s anyone’s guess.
But the hockey world is definitely intrigued by this selection. As the NHL continues attempting to branch out and try new things with less-exposed teams, the Dallas Stars have slid into the forefront.
New Year’s Day 2020. It’s a chance for a Central division rivalry that could become stronger to play out on a grand stage. Hockey’s humble beginnings meets a historic college football landmark. Two southern teams battling it out for supremacy with their fan bases having the opportunity to show up in large numbers.
The stage is set for a great lineup of festivities. But for the NHL, they chose the correct opponent. This could very well be one of the most entertaining Winter Classic games in recent memory.
That will require a good amount from the Dallas Stars, with the first being qualifying for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. It’s still a time of transition in the Stars’ franchise, but there’s also a pressing need to win now.
We’ll see what the next few months hold for both clubs.
But one thing is sure: the NHL is taking a calculated chance that could pay off in a major way.