The 2020 NHL Winter Classic is being held at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. This season's matchup sees the host Dallas Stars take on the Nashville Predators in the NHL's first event to feature two teams from the American South.
Whether you're a die-hard follower of pucks, someone who just watches the Stanley Cup playoffs, or are brand-new to the sport, we've got you covered as you get ready to watch the event on New Year's Day. Why were these teams and this venue chosen? What do the special uniforms look like? Which players are the ones to watch most closely? And who's going to win?
Which teams are playing this year?
Kaplan: The Stars host the Predators at the iconic Cotton Bowl -- it's the first outdoor game for both franchises and the NHL's first foray of outdoor games in the South. There have been other warm-weather contests in the past, with Dodger Stadium (Los Angeles) and Levi's Stadium (Santa Clara) both hosting Stadium Series games. There was an initial fear of rain in Dallas on New Year's Day, but fear not: The latest forecast calls for a cloudy day with a high of 50 and low chance of precipitation. Take this with a grain of salt, though; I late-dropped my meteorology class in college.
Dallas and Nashville are the 24th and 25th teams to have played an outdoor game. Now the only teams without an appearance are the Arizona Coyotes, Carolina Hurricanes, Columbus Blue Jackets, Florida Panthers, Tampa Bay Lightning and Vegas Golden Knights.
When and how do I watch?
Kaplan: The game coverage starts at 1:30 p.m. ET and can be seen on NBC.
Why was Dallas chosen, and what kind of crowd is the NHL expecting?
Kaplan: Since these cities entered the league -- the Stars relocated from Minnesota in 1993 and the Preds were founded in 1998 -- the fan bases have proven they're hungry for the spotlight. Nashville will get to host an event eventually -- just imagine the optics of fans tailgating down Broadway -- but for now, it's an homage to hockey in Texas. And there is history there. Before the Stars came to town, the Dallas Black Hawks of the Central Hockey League played home games at the State Fair Coliseum from 1967 to 1982, and get ready to see plenty of nods to Dallas' original professional hockey club. After the Black Hawks folded, the Freeze (of the CHL revival) came to town briefly before the Stars stayed for good.
The Stars' bid for an outdoor game was boosted after they received great reviews from hosting the 2018 NHL draft. The NHL and Dallas Sports Commission have predicted that the event will bring in nearly $30 million in economic impact.
The NHL says it has already sold 84,000 tickets and is expecting a crowd of 85,000. That would be the second-largest crowd for a Winter Classic, trailing only the 105,491 that filled the Big House in Ann Arbor in 2014 to watch the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs face off (rescheduled from a year earlier, when the game was cancelled due to the lockout).
Tell me that there's a Texas-themed musical act playing ...
Wyshynski: You're darn tootin', there is! (Do they say that in Dallas?) Texas band Midland will perform before the teams hit the ice at the Classic, declaring that "whether we're playing a honky-tonk or at the Cotton Bowl, just know you're about to get 100 percent boot-stomping country music." Please note that one of their biggest hits is a song called "Drinkin' Problem," which seems wholly appropriate on New Year's Day.
Between the second and third periods, things are going to get wild. There's going to be a tribute to the State Fair of Texas that'll feature jugglers, rodeo clowns, a sword swallower, a fire breather, livestock and cowboys ropin' them, all around the rink in the middle of the field. But not on the rink, as that would make it as challenging for the horses as it would make it potentially hilarious for the jugglers.
The impossibly named Jake Hoot, who coincidentally won a reality singing competition show on the very network that's broadcasting the Winter Classic, will perform "The Star-Spangled Banner." Mr. Hoot is born of both worlds: a Corpus Christi, Texas, native who is currently living in Cookeville, Tennessee.
The big-name act for the show is Dan + Shay, the Grammy-winning country duo performing in the first intermission. They're actually quite popular in 2019 by Winter Classic standards and just did a song with Justin Bieber, which at least makes them hockey-adjacent.
I heard a nasty rumor that they weren't going to allow people to tailgate. Doesn't that break some sort of law?
Wyshynski: Things got a little weird for the NHL when it was announced that tailgating wouldn't be allowed at the Winter Classic. Banning tailgating for an outdoor hockey game played at a college football stadium in Texas is akin to banning prayer for tourists to the Vatican, so the NHL reversed course.
"We heard the fans, have worked with the venue & will now allow tailgating at Fair Park and Cotton Bowl Stadium in pre-purchase parking lots only for the 2020 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic," the league said in a tweet.
Tailgating is restricted to pre-purchased lots and will not be permitted during or after the Classic. But before the game? That parking lot's going to be like a Texas-sized Arby's: They'll have all the meats.
What do the special Winter Classic jerseys look like?
Wyshynski: Besides giving two teams outside the Original Six (plus Philadelphia and Pittsburgh) a chance to take the Winter Classic stage, these two sweet jerseys are the best thing about the event so far.
IDK these are pretty sweet. pic.twitter.com/T67wl6eXvZ— Grog "Grag" Wyshynski (@wyshynski) December 31, 2019
These jerseys are the same victory green and white as the Stars' current gear, but the front logo was inspired by the Dallas Texans, a team that played in the USHL in 1945-49. There's a Texas patch on the shoulder, and the star in the middle of the "D" is meant to evoke the Texas state flag. The white shoulders ... well, we're not sure what inspired them, but whatever it was, we wish it hadn't.
Overall, it's a striking look for Dallas, as long as you can avoid reading the front of the jersey as "STDrs."
The Predators will be wearing jerseys inspired by Nashville's hockey history when they take on the Dallas Stars in the Winter Classic. https://t.co/1LOj1SL4RS— NHL.com (@NHLdotcom) November 2, 2019
The Predators are also paying homage to their city's hockey heritage. These sweaters are reminiscent of those of the Dixie Flyers, an Eastern League team that played in Nashville in the 1960s. That's the inspiration for the horizontal stripe and the script lettering.
The real winner with these jerseys is the retro version of the team's saber-toothed tiger's head logo on the shoulder, which should be reprinted on a series of slightly distressed T-shirts and sold to people who overpay for designer sneakers as soon as possible.
OK, so tell me about the key players from each team.
Kaplan: The Predators' strength has long been their defense, and captain Roman Josi is leading the team in points and putting up a solid case for the first Norris Trophy nomination of his career. Ryan Ellis is also excellent, and another key blueliner to watch. The goaltending situation for Nashville has been shaky this season, with the team slowly transitioning from 37-year-old Pekka Rinne (who has manned the net for the entire decade and is just two years removed from his Vezina Trophy season) to 24-year-old Juuse Saros. Both are Finns, and good friends. They've been splitting starts lately, but I'd be shocked if Rinne doesn't get the start considering all he means to the organization.
Nashville's offense has some exciting talent, including Viktor Arvidsson, Filip Forsberg and Ryan Johansen, but expect to hear a lot about Matt Duchene. He was Nashville's splashy free-agent signing this summer (for seven years, $56 million) and had long wanted to go to Nashville because he loves country music. True story.
The Stars are often identified by their two star veteran forwards: Tyler Seguin and captain Jamie Benn. Seguin leads the team in points, but the 30-year-old Benn hasn't been as productive as usual the past two seasons (he's on pace for only 40 points this season; two seasons ago, he finished with 79). The team has a nice mix of young and older players. Roope Hintz, a 23-year-old winger, is having a breakout season, leading the team with 13 goals, and you can never sleep on 33-year-old Alexander Radulov, especially when he's on a hot streak (the Russian enters the game on an eight-game point streak). Longtime Sharks captain Joe Pavelski signed with Dallas this summer, and he'll get plenty of airtime on the broadcast.
The Stars also have a deep blue line -- Miro Heiskanen, Esa Lindell and John Klingberg are all excellent -- and their goaltending is solid too. Ben Bishop probably will get the start, but he has one of the best backups in the league in Anton Khudobin.
How are these teams doing in the standings? Will we see either of them make a big playoff run?
Kaplan: Both of these teams have legitimate Stanley Cup aspirations. But they've both been inconsistent so far this season and are hoping this game can get them on the right track. The Stars had a dreadful start, found a groove, but then abruptly fired their coach Jim Montgomery in early December due to "unprofessional conduct." Rick Bowness took over on an interim basis, and the team is adjusting to yet another bench boss. (Since Benn debuted in 2009-10, he has had six different coaches.) The Predators began the season fine but struggled through November. They are hopeful to turn a corner in the second half, and they should get better goaltending.
The Stars are currently in playoff position -- the third spot in the Central Division -- and the Predators are just three points out of the second wild-card spot in the West (and six points behind the Stars). As Rinne told me last week, "the Central Division is the most competitive I've seen it during my time here." So giddy-up, this should be a good one.
Wyshynski: The Stars and Predators are virtually tied in expected goals percentage at 5-on-5 (Nashville at 52.45%, Dallas at 52.02%). Neither of their power plays or penalty kills are in the top five, although the Stars have the seventh-best penalty kill while Nashville's is 27th. The biggest points of demarcation for these teams: Dallas has the best team save percentage in the NHL (.923) and Nashville has the second worst (.887); and, of course, Dallas is six points up in the standings, although the Predators have two games in hand.
As of now, I like Dallas a bit better as a playoff team than Nashville, but neither of them is better than the second-place team in the Central, whether that's St. Louis or Colorado. Their seasons have certainly been peculiar: Dallas fired a coach they didn't want to have to fire, while -- according to many Predators fans -- Nashville refuses to fire a coach that potentially should go after six seasons.
Let's speculate on the combatants for the 2021 Winter Classic.
Wyshynski: It appears that the NHL's foray into nontraditional markets playing on New Year's Day will be brief. All signs point to Target Field in Minneapolis, home of the Minnesota Twins, as the next Winter Classic destination. ESPN has learned the Blackhawks, Blues, Avalanche and Jets are all in the mix as potential participants.
The Wild have appeared in only one outdoor game, hosting a Stadium Series contest in 2016 against the Blackhawks at the University of Minnesota's TCF Bank Stadium. While the Jets would be a regional rival as well as a divisional one, the NHL has had only two Canadian teams (Original Six franchises Toronto and Montreal) appear in the Winter Classic. The Avalanche have an outdoor game this season at the Air Force Academy. The Blackhawks were just in the 2019 Classic at Notre Dame, and "Chicago outdoor game burnout" is a real symptom for fans after six appearances since 2009.
All of that leaves the Blues, who last appeared in the Classic in 2017 (against Chicago, of course) and who are arguably at the apex of their popularity as a franchise after winning the Cup and leading the Western Conference standings thus far this season. I'm going to speculate Wild vs. Blues, with the caveat that the NHL could easily swap in the surging Avalanche or once again fail to resist the siren's song of the Blackhawks' local viewership numbers.
Finally, who ya got on Wednesday?
Kaplan: I like the Predators in a high-scoring game. Let's say 5-4, with Josi scoring the winning goal.
Wyshynski: Vegas has set the over/under at 5.5 goals. The Predators have hit the over on that in seven of their past nine games. The Stars have gone over that in four of their past five. So I agree with Emily on the over. I disagree on the victor. Home teams have won seven of the past nine NHL outdoor games. Dallas is playing better hockey coming into this thing. Give me the Stars 4-3 over the Preds.