Puck, yeah: How outdoor NHL games bring hockey players back to their roots

The NHL Stadium Series, Winter Classic and Heritage Classic are a modern nod to tradition -- and they go head-to-head with the weather

It’s something so novel and yet it’s a tale as old as time: the outdoor hockey game.

For almost 20 years, the NHL has hosted a selection of games that bring their players and fans under the sun and evening stars.

Major stadiums in the United States and Canada are transformed from football and baseball fields to ice rinks for a few hockey games.

While taking the games out of indoor rinks may seem relatively new, it’s a fun return to form for many players hitting the ice.

Back to biscuits

"What's really interesting about the NHL players, most of them growing up and as little kids learn how to play hockey outdoors on ponds in these kind of environments," said Steve Mayer, the chief content officer in charge of events and content at the NHL.  

"So we're really taking them back to their roots, playing outdoors."


The NHL began hosting outdoor games in 2003 and then revived the games about 12 years ago.

According to Mayer, the NHL typically plays three outdoor games per season: the Winter Classic, the Stadium Series and the Heritage Classic.

The Winter Classic takes place in the beginning of January.

"It's playing in the middle of winter with the snow falling down," said Mayer. "So, the field is usually covered with snow, and it takes on this classic, really unique feel."

Then in February, the NHL hosts the Stadium Series.

"That game is a little more progressive — it goes to a little more futuristic stadium," said Mayer. "That game typically also is a nighttime game, so you can take advantage of fireworks and pyro."

"All of our fans and just fans in general, just, they love that," he added.

Come November or around March, the Heritage Classic brings the sport home.

"The Heritage Classic is a true celebration of hockey in Canada," said Mayer. "It's as big as it gets in Canada — it's like nothing you've ever seen."

As dozens of games are played indoors during the regular season, these three outdoor games stand out.

"Aside from playing in the Stanley Cup playoffs and certainly in the Stanley Cup final, this is a career highlight for most of our NHL players to be able to participate in one of these outdoor games," said Mayer.

"It's quite an experience."

The mighty mets

The games are played in the same stadiums where touchdowns and home runs are made.

"We build a rink essentially in the middle of a football field and then we surround that rink with a field designed so that when you're done and when you come to one of our outdoor games, you don't even see a blade of grass," said Mayer.

For example, the 2022 Stadium Series will be played in Nashville, in a football stadium that seats 70,000 fans.

"It is a pretty awesome sight to see," said Mayer.

Playing in football and baseball stadiums does come with considerations not faced by indoor hockey games — particularly, the weather.    

"We have some of the best meteorologists in the area and then globally, we have a few that actually work on all of our events, and they constantly are giving us great advice," said Mayer.

"We constantly look at the weather as one of the factors that goes into putting one of these games on."

According to Mayer, weather experts provide the NHL with hourly updates on weather conditions and how playable the ice will be, especially as game time approaches.

"Rain is probably our worst enemy — a driving rain on ice, and especially if the temperature is slightly warm," said Mayer. "Warm water on ice, never the best mix."

While a drizzle isn’t enough to stop the games, driving rain will lead to the players being taken off of the ice.


Another factor that can put a wrinkle in things is lightning. As is the case in football and baseball, if lightning is detected, the game will be cleared to protect players and fans.

"Our job is to make sure that they have an incredible time, and they leave and come in the most safe manner," Mayer said.

The sun is another consideration. In addition to it warming up the ice, it can be a major variable for hockey players’ safety.

"The sun in their eyes, it can be dangerous if, for any reason, they're shielded from a fast-moving puck," said Mayer.

The sun, lightning and heavy rain aside, some weather elements haven’t been enough to affect the gameplay.

One example is the temperature.

The coldest NHL game was the Winter Classic on Jan. 1, 2022, in Minneapolis. The temperature dropped to negative 6 degrees. The warmest game was the Stadium Series on Feb. 27, 2016, in Denver. The temperature rose to 65 degrees.

According to Mayer, not even a hurricane could stop a game.

"We had a hurricane a day before a game in Annapolis, Maryland, and we were able to recover from that and play the game on schedule," he said.

One weather element can actually add to the aesthetic of the games, according to Mayer.

"Snow is actually OK for us," he said. "A little snow, it adds to the environment. It adds to the beauty of what we're putting together, and it's not necessarily a huge factor in terms of gameplay."

According to Mayer, there aren’t many weather elements his team hasn’t encountered, so they know what they need to do to make sure the games begin on time without a hitch.

We will rock you

"For me and our entire team here at the NHL, this is a labor of love," said Mayer. "We love putting these games out for our fans."

The games’ outdoor venues also make way for music and entertainment to highlight local cultures, along with pyro and fireworks that would be impossible to produce for indoor hockey games.

According to Mayer, the outdoor games are truly a show.

"Every single game has had those moments that we take with us for the rest of our life," he said.

"That's what it's all about is creating those moments, is creating those memories not only for us, but for our fans — and as you can tell, we get really excited about that."