DALLAS -- Jason Dickinson knew his coach would be no match for Alex OINK-vechkin.
As the Dallas Stars forward stood at his team's bench during a timeout, he caught a glimpse of the pig races being held near the Winter Classic rink inside the Cotton Bowl, part of the game's celebration of all things Texas. Coach Rick Bowness was talking to his players about structure and strategy. Dickinson felt his mind starting to go hog wild.
"I saw it on the big screen. I had to look away. I knew I'd get in trouble," he told me with a laugh. "This game was everything and more."
Everyone was making their Stefon from "Saturday Night Live" jokes about the 2020 Winter Classic, because this place had everything: knife jugglers, rodeo clowns, a mechanical bull, line dancers [pause for comedic effect] ... Alex OINK-vechkin.
That was on the field. Outside the Cotton Bowl, there was a midway of carnival games, a giant Ferris wheel, and corn dogs the size of Zdeno Chara's hockey stick.
"This is our 29th outdoor game. We try to dress up the stadium a little bit differently to reflect a local ambiance," said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. "I understand Twitter is going nuts, in a good way, over the pig races. They want more of them."
Yes! We want more pig races, literally and symbolically. Because the NHL's outdoor games are at their best when they're at their weirdest.
The 2020 Winter Classic was the rare total package. The Stars and Nashville Predators played an intense, meaningful game that had controversy and physicality as well as flurries of goals. It was the kind of hockey that isn't often seen on a rink in a football stadium.
"That was great hockey, man," Bowness said, succinctly.
Add that to the weird and you have what's easily in the top three of Winter Classics, and a contender for most satisfying outdoor game experience in NHL history.
It's the weird that usually sticks in the mind long after these games are done. The palm trees, along with KISS playing in the Dodger Stadium game. The winds of Wrigley Field, where Ryne Sandberg sang "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" with Stan Mikita. Nelly -- Nelly! -- and the alumni game in St. Louis. Quick: Who scored the game-winning goal in South Bend last year? You probably have no idea, but you remember the leprechaun falling down on the ice and the Bruins dressing like "Peaky Blinders," don't you?
But the true memorable weirdness of the 2020 Winter Classic wasn't the giant cowboy boots or the honky-tonk dancers or even the aforementioned Alex OINK-vechkin.
It was the Nashville Predators and the Dallas Stars being chosen to play in one. Especially for the players who never thought they'd get this chance while a member of either franchise.
"To be honest, no," Predators defenseman Ryan Ellis told me before the game. "It's not that we're forgotten down there at all, but you see a lot of the previous games go to the bigger markets. To the Chicagos and Torontos."
This was the first Winter Classic not to feature either at least one Original Six team or the Pittsburgh Penguins in it.
"Coming from Boston, not getting to play in [the Fenway] one and then getting traded, I always wanted to play in one. I wouldn't have said in my head when I got traded here that I would be playing in an outdoor game as a Dallas Star. It was surreal when we found out the news," said center Tyler Seguin. "Coming to Dallas, I didn't know what to expect. I expected cowboy hats and horses riding around, stuff like that. But I think the NHL got a glimpse at the fans we have here at the NHL draft, and liked what they saw, and now we have this game."
One of the consistent complaints about the NHL from fans is the lack of variety in the teams it promotes the most. The old joke that goes "wait, you can play an outdoor game without the Blackhawks?" is grounded not only in the actual tally (six outdoor games, the most in the NHL) but in the cynicism that the league and its television partners don't want to mix up the playlist from the traditional standards.
The Stars and Predators were a new tune, and it was an instant earworm.
It's a feeling we'll get again when Nashville and Raleigh host their Stadium Series games in the next few years, each becoming an open celebration of their hockey cultures. We'll be overwhelmed by it when Las Vegas gets a stadium event. Tampa would be great as well, as evidenced by the All-Star Game party there. And while it might take the Penguins as an opponent to help fill all 104,851 seats at the Horseshoe, a Columbus outdoor game at Ohio State would be epic.
The NHL is going to Minnesota for the Winter Classic next year, after the team played a Stadium Series game previously. That's fine. The freezing temps will present a unique challenge. It's wild the Wild have been in only one outdoor game. But as weirdness goes, it's not the most inspired choice.
Now, if the league really wanted to get freaky, it'd throw Winnipeg in as the opponent, as a convoy of Jets supporters cross the border and invade the game like the Predators fans did in Dallas. I've had some people inside the league tell me that this would be their preference too but that there's little chance the NHL's television partners would agree to a Minnesota vs. Winnipeg game on New Year's Day. (Best guess for a 2021 foe: the St. Louis Blues.)
No matter the opponent, I just hope the NHL continues to throw everything it has at these concepts to make it as weird as possible. The charm of the Winter Classic isn't some utopian "boys on the pond" vision of hockey. That's boring and repetitive. The charm of the Winter Classic is a community coming together to celebrate the game, party with one other and wallow in the silly traditions of the host city. That's weird and captivating.
What's the Minnesota version of a pig race, anyway? A deer derby? A wolf rally?
"It was kind of neat, having pig races during a hockey game," said Dallas goalie Ben Bishop.
"Top that," Seguin said.
Two things about this "Shirsey Foul." First, you have to at least acknowledge that an attempt was made to rock the green in support of the Dallas Stars. Second, Jersey Fouls at the Winter Classic are dicey. It's essentially a celebration of hockey. My rule of thumb: Wear whatever jersey you'd like as long as it's not a team either of the participants would consider a primary rival. And 2017 Stanley Cup Final aside, the Penguins aren't really one for the Stars or the Predators. Now, had this been a Patrick Kane shirsey ...
Three more things about the 2020 Winter Classic
1. I know this is going to come as a surprise, but I've never scored a goal in the National Hockey League. I always assumed that if I did, I would marinate in the crowd's roar and hear every single joyful shout that my feat had inspired.
Turns out, that's not how it works for NHL players, as I found out when I asked Dallas forward Mattias Janmark -- who was dressed like Vincent Vegas cosplaying as line dancer -- about the feeling you get when you score a goal in front of 85,000 fans, as he did for the Stars in the Classic.
"I don't know. Honestly, when you score, you kind of block that out," he told me.
"You're so emotional. In those moments, you wish you could take it all in, but you kind of get caught up in your own [emotions]. In the minutes after, it's amazing to see."
Was he an outlier? Not really. I asked Stars forward Blake Comeau, who also scored in the Winter Classic.
"I didn't hear the crowd right when I scored, just because you're so excited on the ice with the guys. It's an important game division-wise, but it's also so important to give our fans something to cheer about as well," he said. "After I got to the bench and sat down, I was able to soak it up. Thinking about my family in the stands, being able to see it in person. It was so cool."
So there you go: Even if NHL players don't hear your deafening roars at first, they will eventually.
2. I've covered upward of a dozen outdoor games, and I think this one was the best in terms of swag design:
Winter Classic shirt designs part 2 pic.twitter.com/VZ62fwx4iY— Greg Wyshynski (@wyshynski) January 1, 2020
The "hockey armadillo" one is just delightfully weird. (It was also available on a hat.) I met an out-of-towner in my hotel elevator wearing one and told him I thought they were great. He didn't know what the armadillo signified, or why it was holding a hockey stick. I told him that, as far as I could tell, the animal is found throughout Texas, and the highway sign was a reminder that they frequently end up as roadkill.
He seemed significantly less enamored with his purchase all of a sudden.
3. The Dallas Winter Classic wasn't entirely rainbows and pig races. We'd be remiss if we didn't mention the absolute cluster that was the entry to the fan fest "midway," filled with rides and games of chance, as well as Marty Turco signing autographs for fans with membership cards to a Vegas casino operator.
It was a claustrophobic terror: lines for corn dogs and spiked seltzer colliding with lines of fans trying to enter the fan fest colliding with lines for entirely different food offerings colliding with thousands of fans just trying to make their way to the main gate of the Cotton Bowl. I stood in this mess for 25 minutes and didn't move, like being stuck on the world's largest overcrowded subway car. One woman said to me, "Stay out of the midway if you like moving. It's a nightmare." Another pleaded to me, "Don't blame this on Dallas. Blame the NHL."
Whoever was to blame, it was a disastrous bit of planning that thankfully didn't lead to greater disaster. There were 85,000 people at this game, and there wasn't a single divider to keep foot traffic flowing, or anyone trying to direct it. It's a shame that so many people probably bailed on the midway because they couldn't get through that perfect storm. The Texas State Fair fun was one of the event's true charms.
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Winners and Losers of the Week
Winner: John Tortorella
Kudos to the Blue Jackets coach for taking a stand against poor officiating and the league's enabling of it. Columbus wins that game against Chicago in overtime if the clock was managed correctly, and Joonas Korpisalo never gets hurt in that shootout because there wouldn't have been one. Tortorella's volcanic eruptions aren't always justified, but this one was.
Loser: Also John Tortorella
He got a $20,000 fine for those comments, but more notable was the sword of Damocles hanging over Torts' head in the form of an additional $25,000 fine that will be collected if he commits an act of "similar inappropriate behavior" before Dec. 29, 2020. This is the first "delayed fine" I can recall from the NHL. It's like probation, I guess? Keep yourself clean and you won't be back in NHL jail? I wish Tortorella would just pay the $25,000 now in a show of defiance, like a frustrated parent loading up on swear jar credits.
Winner: Anthony Duclair
The Duke has 21 goals in 40 games for the Ottawa Senators after very much looking as if he was headed for journeyman status as recently as last season. And now he's an NHL All-Star. In the span of one year, he's gone from being "uncoachable" to having a career season in a contract year. Incredible.
Loser: Brad Marchand
Marchand is tied for third in the NHL in points (59) and points per game (1.44). He's a legit Hart Trophy candidate. Yet he wasn't named to the NHL All-Star Game, and he wasn't named to the "last man in" voting potentials for the Atlantic Division. Which is a shame, because the guy loved being on the All-Star stage. My theory: The game is in St. Louis. They beat Boston for the Cup last season. Marchand was booed in Tampa as an All-Star. Imagine the reception from the St. Louis faithful who will pack the All-Star Game?
Winner: Craig Leipold
Gary Bettman said that the Minnesota Wild owner pressed him and the NHL for years to get the Winter Classic in Minneapolis. Mission accomplished, as the Wild will host the event at Target Field in 2021. (A plea: Keep Bruce Boudreau for one more season. He's really fun in the lead-up to these things.)
Loser: "Perfect" weather
Bettman said the temperature (54.9 degrees Fahrenheit) and the overcast day made for perhaps the ideal weather conditions for the Winter Classic. Those conditions will not be repeated in Minnesota a year from now.
Winner: Pete DeBoer
After going 15-16-2 before head coach Pete DeBoer was fired, the San Jose Sharks have gone 2-5-1 under interim coach Bob Boughner and have two wins overall since Dec. 3. Their most recent defeat was at the Detroit Red Wings, for whom it was the first win in seven games and first shutout of the season. So, Pete: Maybe it wasn't you, pal.
Loser: Peter Laviolette
The Predators' Winter Classic loss to the Dallas Stars had some of the same hallmarks as other frustrating losses this season. (Although it was nice to see the power play produce for a change.) The Predators keep treading water, with inconsistent play (especially between the pipes) preventing any sustained success. Laviolette shut down a question in his postgame news conference about feeling any pressure personally. But something has to change with this team. And better coaches have taken the fall for an underwhelming team save percentage.
Bruce Arthur presents the best sports quotes of the decade, including this hockey classic: "I don't know what that word means, but he's weird." -- Canadian center Brayden Schenn on whether his World Juniors roommate, Louis Leblanc, was eccentric.
The Cleveland Monsters AHL team inadvertently pranked their fans into thinking they were changing their name to the Lumberjacks.
Women's hockey had a heck of a decade.
Stan Fischler on the history of Seattle hockey nicknames. Clearly, the NHL should bring back the Shurfine Groceries Hockey Club.
If you have an extra $1.9 million in the couch cushions, you can own Vladimir Tarasenko's old house, including the 18-foot mini hockey rink that comes with it.
Has divisional imbalance ruined the NHL's playoff races? Travis Yost writes that the Metro division "will be a knife fight for no more than two wild-card spots and a guaranteed bloodbath matchup in the first round between the two and three seeds in the division."
Alexis Lafreniere, the great Quebecois hope.
Will Artemi Panarin surpass Alex Ovechkin as the top Russian in the NHL? Said Gillian Kemmerer, global hockey reporter and host of The Faceoff for the KHL: "One interesting thing to note about Panarin is that he is an outspoken critic of [Russian] President Vladimir Putin -- a public position rarely, if ever, taken by a professional athlete in Russia. ... This may endear him to Western audiences who support athlete-activists, but it would not be a universally popular opinion in Russia."
Hockey tl;dr (too long; didn't read)
I enjoyed Ken Wiebe's look back at the 2005 Canadian World Junior team. ($)
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