Did your dad used to flood the yard every winter so you could work on your skating and puck handling? Did you and your friends traipse down to the neighborhood pond to play shinny? If so, you didn’t grow up in Fort Worth. But in parts north, that’s how a lot of kids get exercise and entertainment during the colder months of the year. Many of those young people grow up to be hockey fans, and some of them even become professional hockey players. It was with that heritage in mind that the National Hockey League instituted its Winter Classic game in 2008.
On or around each New Year’s Day, the league stages a game at a large outdoor facility normally used for the likes of baseball or football. Live crowds numbering in the tens of thousands and a national TV audience have made the event a big deal. Stadia hosting it have included Notre Dame Stadium, Fenway Park, Wrigley Field, and Citi Field. All the venues have been located in the Northeast or Midwest – until now. The league will stage the 2020 game at the Cotton Bowl Stadium.
Monday night, the Dallas Influencers in Sports and Entertainment held an event at American Airlines Center for those working in the sports industry locally to learn about how the game came to be scheduled in North Texas. Events of this scale don’t happen without major sponsors, so the panel included a representative of the company who’ll act as presenting sponsor of what is officially known as the Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic®. The Vice President of Marketing for Bridgestone Americas Tire Operations, Amber Holm, served as one of the panelists for the discussion, so in the video interview that leads this post, I asked her about the whys and hows of that involvement. Like a lot of people, it sounds like they weren’t sure what to think when the league decided to bring the game south, but realized fairly quickly that it was going to present a great opportunity.
Bridgestone is headquartered in Nashville, and the Predators will be the visiting team on New Year’s Day. Holm has hockey-playing sons who play on that city’s rinks (I didn’t ask her if she floods her backyard for them when it gets below freezing). There’s a good case to be made that the Stars’ success in Dallas paved the way for southern markets like Nashville to become viable ones for a sport that isn’t as natural fit there as it is in places where below-freezing temperatures regularly create natural playing surfaces. So Nashville versus Dallas seems like an appropriate matchup for the first Sun Belt Winter Classic.
During the panel discussion, we did find out from Dallas Stars’ President Brad Alberts that the Predators weren’t the only team in consideration as the visitors, though apparently the discussion did start with them before meandering to other teams and eventually settling back on the Preds. Alberts and Holm were joined on the stage by Dallas Sports Commission Executive Director Monica Paul, NHL Group Vice President of Business Development & Sponsorship Sales Brian Cull, and moderator Matt DeFranks of the Dallas Morning News.
Alberts and his team had wanted to figure out a way to hold a stadium game, but the time frame of the Classic’s preparation requirements meant Tarrant County’s AT&T Stadium wouldn’t be an option due to football commitments. They decided the Cotton Bowl fit not only the seating needs but also matched the historical character that inspired the game in the first place. It’s also undergone renovations to add ribbon boards and upgrade the scoreboards. One potential snag came in the form of the SERVPRO First Responder Bowl, traditionally played in the Cotton Bowl Stadium the week after Christmas, because the NHL’s setup team needs two to three weeks to prepare everything for the outdoor game. Luckily, Texas does have an abundance of football stadia and they were able to move the bowl game to SMU.
The site itself presents some opportunities, and Paul indicated they would be able to use almost all of Fair Park’s building for either logistical needs or hospitality events and they also plan to have at least a portion of the Midway open for business. Big Tex will be on hand, thought the parties were coy about whether he’ll wear a Stars jersey.
The game is counted as a Dallas Stars home game on the schedule, but the league does most of the work. They pay the home team a flat fee calculated based on the revenue they would normally earn from a home game. So Celina Rae won’t necessarily sing the anthem as she normally does at the AAC, although I do expect a sizable portion of the crowd to yell “Stars” when that lyric comes up during the song. So whichever country music superstar they bring in to do it needs to be prepared for that bit of audience participation.
We found out from Cull that it can actually be easier for the NHL’s “ice guru” to make a good playing surface when the weather skews warmer as opposed to frigid. Apparently the ice surface in tends to crack as the thermometer drops into the Arctic range. Normal Texas January temperatures should be fine, although if you did grow up here, you know how unpredictable they can be.
Paul mentioned that one of the league’s concerns was making sure the stadium management ordered enough beer for the game. Apparently the word has gotten around that hockey fans like the suds. It’s good to hear the operations folks are top of that.
They’ll unveil the special team uniforms November 15th. If tickets sales are any indication, those sweaters will be in-demand items. Alberts said the league had initially been concerned about sales, but he felt like he knew the local market and wasn’t concerned. The Stars’ president was right – the game sold out rapidly.
Bridgestone will supply some of that crowd, flying employees from their Tennessee offices to enjoy this signature sponsored property. One thing all the panelists noted was that bringing in fans who are not hardcore hockey nuts is a potential benefit of holding the Classic in a market like North Texas. It’s even possible some local players might get to play on the rink at some point before they tear it down. Many of those players may be native Texans who took up the game because the Stars came here, so it would likely be their first chance to play outdoors – no frozen pond necessary.