Takes, thoughts, and trends is theScore's monthly spin around the NHL.
First, it was Nils Hoglander in October during a Swedish league game. Then it was Andrei Svechnikov a few days later during an NHL game. Then it was Svechnikov again in early December. And, as if to say "let me catch up here," Hoglander did it again last week at the World Junior Championship.
The so-called lacrosse goal was all the rage toward the end of 2019. A Minnesota high schooler recently got in on the fun as well:
Svechnikov, the fantastic Carolina Hurricanes sophomore, isn't the only NHLer capable of filling the highlight reel with such skill. Someone will join him soon.
Toronto Maple Leafs sniper Auston Matthews has tried to pick the puck up behind the net numerous times this year. Elias Pettersson, the wizardly Vancouver Canucks center, is open to the idea. Might Jack Eichel, whose puck skills are off the charts, attempt a lacrosse goal in the near future?
"Probably not. ... If the opportunity presented itself, maybe, I don't know," the Buffalo Sabres captain said this past weekend. "You've seen it done a few more times, so teams are probably a little more prepared for it. It's tough to do. To be able to do it as smoothly as (Svechnikov's) done it, it's really, really impressive. You've seen a lot of guys try and not be successful, and he's done it twice. It's awesome, honestly."
Old-school Boston Bruins forward David Backes - who, at 35 years old, admits he would never try to pull off a lacrosse goal - is intrigued by the recent development and tips his cap to Svechnikov. As he explains, so much goes into the result.
"Fresh ice, fresh stick, warmer puck - all of those things. What you've got on your stick for tape or wax. Everything can factor into how easy or difficult that would be. Or, if it just hops (onto the toe of your stick) as you're going behind the net, maybe you can fling it in there. I'm impressed by them," Backes said before adding with a smile: "Would I try to take a run at that guy in the next shift against him? I certainly would. But that's my thought process."
Fully evolved Eichel
Speaking of Eichel, he's firmly in the Hart Trophy discussion. For my money, Nathan MacKinnon has been more valuable to his team, but if the Sabres break their eight-season playoff drought, Eichel has a chance with voters. It's been a treat to watch him level up to bona fide superstar status.
Always a strong skater, a neutral-zone champion, and the heartbeat of the Sabres, it's this year - his fifth in the NHL - that's been Eichel's most impressive. He's produced 52 points in 39 games, and at times, he's been unstoppable.The 23-year-old plays 21:51 a night, second on the entire squad.
Asked what he's learned about Eichel since joining the Sabres in training camp, forward Marcus Johansson's eyes widened.
"I didn't know that he could be so dominant so consistently like he's been. I don't know how many games he's won for us this year. He's got something special," said Johansson, who has also playedfor the Capitals, Devils, and Bruins over a 10-year career. "There's only a couple of guys, maybe, that have that. He can take over games completely, and he puts the team on his shoulders. It's impressive. I don't know what to say - if it's a talent or what it is - but it's special."
What exactly is Eichel doing so well when he's dominating?
"(It's about) how in control he is," Johansson said. "He's got the puck on his stick a lot. It's anything from making moves to unbelievable passes, unbelievable shots. There's just nothing that he can't do. To be as big as he is and to have all of that skill, it's pretty fun to watch."
Johansson didn't mention the sequence below as an example of this evolved form of Jack Eichel, but it qualifies, with a tremendous mix of skill, confidence, and patience on display:
The Marchand Show
Based solely on raw production, Brad Marchand is 2019's king.
Counting regular-season and playoff action, the Bruins star ranks first in points, first in assists, and second in goals, with only Tuesday's 13-game slate remaining in 2019. Marchand, who has appeared in 105 total games and faces the New Jersey Devils on Tuesday afternoon, obviously benefited from team success. Nevertheless, the "Little Ball of Hate" accomplished a ton.
Marchand has piled up 140 points in the calendar year. Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid ranks second with 121 points, and his teammate Leon Draisaitl is third with 117. Just eight others have hit triple digits - among them Marchand's center, Patrice Bergeron.
The lone player to accrue 80 assists in 2019, Marchand is at 88. McDavid is second with 79. As for goals, David Pastrnak, the third member of Boston's top line, has scored one more than Marchand's 52. Draisaitl (51) and Washington Capitals gunslinger Alex Ovechkin (50) are the only others who have bagged 50 in the calendar year.
The main takeaway here is that Marchand, 31 years old, is bucking the typical NHL aging curve. He didn't really arrive as a top-line producer until he was 27, and he is wrapping up his finest year four seasons later. Quite a career arc.
Duclair, Sens a match?
Sixteen players on the Ottawa Senators' 22-man roster are on expiring contracts, but none of them are showcasing themselves like Anthony Duclair.
The 24-year-old pending restricted free agent can start negotiating a new contract with the Sens on Wednesday. Since October, general manager Pierre Dorion must have been asking himself: Is Duclair's breakout season for real, and is he part of the club's long-term core?
If the answer is "yes" to both questions, there should be a fit.
Now with his fifth NHL organization, Duclair seems to have found stability in the form of playing time and production. In just 40 games, he's set a career high in goals with 21. He was named an All-Star on Monday.
Rare 1-2 punch
Fun fact: 1966-67 was the last time defensemen finished first and second in Calder Trophy voting. Bobby Orr was crowned rookie of the year, while tough-as-nails Ed Van Impe earned runner-up honors.
More than 50 years later, with Vancouver's Quinn Hughes and Colorado's Cale Makardominating the first three months of the 2019-20 season, we may finally witness another one-two showing. (Just 11 defensemen have won ROTYin the Calder's 82-year existence.)
Only a drastic drop-off in production or a severe injury to Hughes or Makar, and/or a transcendent second half from another rookie, can derail the tandem's momentum. They're simply peerless in the crop of first-years.
The best part? The numbers suggest neither player isrunning away with the award:
Time on ice
5v5 Corsi %
5v5 Corsi Rel. %
5v5 xGF %
5v5 Off. ZS %
If we're splitting hairs, Hughes has been a smidgen better. Through the prisms of advanced stats and the eye test, the Canucks cornerstone is a more well-rounded player. On several occasions, the 20-year-old has demonstrated the rare ability to control the flow of an entire game.
But, again, it's stupidly close. Makar, who has missed some time due to injury, has proven his 2018-19 playoff performance was no fluke. He's 21 and already a legit star. Flashier and more productive than Hughes, Makar has no problem keeping up with MacKinnon and the Avalanche's other skilled forwards.
It'll be interesting to see if either stud earns a spot on his divisional team ahead of All-Star Weekend in late January. Both can be added to the festivities in St. Louis through the NHL's "Last Men In" fan vote. Something to remember: Hughes' competition in the Pacific(Getzlaf, Keller, Gaudreau, Nugent-Hopkins, Doughty, Hertl, Pacioretty)pales in comparison to Makar's rivals in the Central (Toews, Benn, Suter, Duchene, Perron, Laine).
The ideal scenario, of course, would be the inclusion of Hughes and Makar. These super rookies are made for the skills event and three-on-three tournament.
Fascinating rookie class
Behind Hughes and Maker is a lengthy list of lesser-known freshmen who haven't encountered the dreaded rookie wall so far.
Victor Olofsson of the Sabres leads all rookies in offense with highs in goals (16) and points (34). Ilya Mikheyev, the leader in even-strength points with 22, has been a crucial component of Toronto's attack. Edmonton's Ethan Bear and Pittsburgh's John Marino are playing 20 minutes a night as defensemen and, for the most part, looking comfortable in their high-profile roles. Adam Fox of the Rangers, another blue-liner, has quietly recorded 17 points in 38 games.
The rookie goalie group is holding its own, too. Washington's Ilya Samsonov (.918 save percentage in 14 games), Vancouver's Thatcher Demko (.907 in 13), and New Jersey's Mackenzie Blackwood (.906 in 29) have quickly established themselves at the NHL level, which is much easier said than done.
If I were to fill out my Calder ballot right now, I'd put Hughes first, Makar second, Olofsson third, Marino fourth, and Mikheyev fifth.
McCann's new groove
Scouts say Jared McCann had a pro-level shot at 14 years old. He had worked tirelessly on his wrister growing up in the London, Ontario, area, and it had started paying off early. At 18, he became a first-round NHL draft pick.
Yet it wasn't until the former Canucks speedster landed in Pittsburgh four years later that he really hit his stride at the NHL level. Playing mostly center for the Penguins, McCann's built off a strong finish to the 2018-19 season by collecting 10 goals and 13 assists for 23 points in 37 games this year.
That's big-time production compared to his stint with the Florida Panthers, where McCann struggled to cope with dry spells. He sought professional help in Florida and found it made a world of a difference for his mental health.
"The pressure of playing well every single night weighs on you. It really does," McCann, 23, explained. "I put a lot of pressure on myself to be a good player, and when you have a bad night, and everybody's on you - like the media, and stuff. It's not fun. It gets into your head. Even if you say it doesn't, it does."
"You don't need to take everything so seriously," he added. "But that's the kid I am, right? Growing up in a construction family, when you do a job you do it right and you move on. But going through that stuff is tough, and you need to talk to someone. You really do."
McCann emphasized that his struggles weren't overly serious; he wasn't diagnosed with any condition, as his issues were mainly linked to on-ice success. Still, he seems to be playing freer in Pittsburgh, and it's nice to see.
Sharks still drowning
No underachieving club has a steeper hill to climb in the 2020 portion of the 2019-20 campaign than the San Jose Sharks.
Unlike three of the NHL's four other coaching changesthis season, the Sharks' fire-and-hire earlier in December hasn't yielded much success:
Yes, seven games is a small sample size. That's why concluding anything definitive about Bob Boughner and his job as Pete DeBoer's replacement would be unfair. The facts are the facts, though: A team is in trouble when it doesn't get the usual new-coach bump. Time is running out for the Sharks.
Heading into Tuesday's tilt against Detroit - San Jose's 41st of the season - the team is eight points out of a playoff spot in the Western Conference. Only the Red Wings, Devils, and Kings, squads firmly in rebuild mode, have accumulated fewer points than the 17-20-3 Sharks.
Terrible goaltending, porous five-on-five defense, and an uncharacteristically mediocre offense have put the Sharks in a peculiar spot: They are in great danger of missing the postseason during a year in which they don't own a first-round pick. It's a cringeworthy reality for one of the NHL's top franchises.
And the most puzzling part is their special teams, which rank first (penalty kill) and 28th (power play). Such an odd dynamic. The most recent NHL team to finish a season with the top-ranked penalty kill/power play and also a bottom-five PK/PP was the 2014-15 Minnesota Wild (1st in PK, 27th in PP).
Disaster in the Pacific
How crazy is it that, at what's essentially the midway point of the season, no Pacific Division team has banked enough wins and overtime/shootout losses to crack the league's top 10 in points percentage?
The fast-starting Canucks, at .575%, are now 14th among 31 teams; the sleeping-giant Golden Knights, at .571%, are 15th; the steady Coyotes, at .561%, are 16th; the roller-coaster Flames, at .549%, are 19th; the reeling Oilers, at .537%, are 23rd; the retooling Ducks, at .474%, are 26th; the disappointing Sharks, at .463%, are 27th; and the lifeless Kings, at .439%, are 29th.
What a gong show.
Winter Classic beauties
In my humble opinion, the Dallas Stars' Jan. 1 attire is among the best in Winter Classic history. It's truly a wonderful work of art:
The look, in part a tribute to the Dallas Texans of the 1940s, strikes a balance between clean and creative. It's simple from a design standpoint, yet the jersey's large "D" logo and the colors of the throwback gloves and pants command attention. The state of Texas arm patch is a neat touch.
This year's event - Stars versus Predators on Wednesday at the Cotton Bowl - is the 12th of its kind, which means there have now been 24 Winter Classic looks. The 2009 Red Wings, 2010 Bruins, and 2017 Blues donned noteworthy ensembles. But let's be honest: The 2020 Stars look deserves a stall alongside the 2008 Penguins and 2016 Bruins in the Winter Classic Looks Hall of Fame. (That is, if such a museum existed ...)
One final thing: Whatever happened to goalie goals?
The beginning of the decade produced three - Cam Ward in December 2011, Martin Brodeur in March 2013, Mike Smith in October 2013 - but there hasn't been a single, glorious netminder tally in the six-plus years since.
On the surface, it doesn't add up. NHL teams send out an extra attacker more frequently than in previous eras. And the sixth skater typically hops over the boards earlier in the third period. Oftentimes, the trailing team is down by two or more goals, which gives the goalie on the leading team a prime opportunity to shoot their shot. Despite all of these factors, however, no five-on-six empty-netters have come to fruition.
Since I'm far from a goalie expert, I reached out to InGoal Magazine writer Paul Campbell for his take on the disconnect. He shared three rough theories.
"If I had to guess, I'd say that teams can’t obstruct like they used to, so goalies get far fewer chances to do it. Like a QB with a bad O-line," Campbell said, referring to the lack of quality shooting opportunities and lanes available to netminders in an NHL that disincentivizes forms of interference.
The modern goalie operates on his knees regularly throughout a game, "which is great for sealing the posts, but bad for playing the puck," Campbell noted.
"I also think we're seeing the aftermath of the trapezoid rule now," he added. "Goalies and goalie coaches have been prioritizing puck handling far less, so we have a generation of goalies that isn't so confident with it."
Hmm. Maybe 2020 won't be the year of the goalie goal after all.
The Pittsburgh Penguins will be without Jake Guentzel for at least the rest of the regular season, as the talented forward is expected to miss four-to-six months after undergoing surgery on his right shoulder, the club announced Tuesday.
Guentzel was hurt when he fell awkwardly into the boards after scoring a goal against the Ottawa Senators on Monday night.
The 25-year-old joins a slew of Penguins already on the shelf, including superstar captain Sidney Crosby.
Guentzel poured in 20 goals and 43 points in 39 games this season after racking up 40 goals and 76 points in 2018-19.
He played all 82 regular-season contests in each of the previous two campaigns and was in his fourth campaign with the Penguins, who selected him in the third round of the 2013 draft.
Korpisalo, who was given a four-to-six-week timetable for his recovery, underwent surgery Monday.
The 25-year-old was hurt in non-contact fashion on the Blackhawks' first shootout attempt Sunday.
Korpisalo's injury was one of the reasons Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella was incensed about the officiating crew's apparent clock error that preceded Zach Werenski's disallowed overtime winner, which came just after the buzzer.
The 25-year-old netminder has a .913 save percentage across 32 games in his first season as Columbus' starter.
This year will undoubtedly be remembered as the one in which hockey's coaching fraternity first faced a reckoning for inappropriate conduct.
Though several former players only came forward relatively recently, the revelations they've shared have already had an immeasurable impact on hockey culture and will continue to resonate for years to come.
The year also featured its share of other major talking points both on and off the ice, from contract squabbles to shocking playoff results and more.
Here are the 10 biggest NHL stories of 2019:
10. Blackhawks suspend Crawford
In early December, after two NHL head coaches came under fire for inappropriate behavior, the Chicago Blackhawks launched a review of assistant coach Marc Crawford, citing "recent allegations ... made regarding his conduct with another organization."
The team took action after Sean Avery said Crawford kicked him during a game with the Los Angeles Kings in 2006 and after Brent Sopel's allegations of several instances of abuse by Crawford during his tenure with the Vancouver Canucks.
On Dec. 16, Chicago suspended Crawford until Jan. 2. The veteran bench boss admitted he'd "sometimes went too far" in using "unacceptable language and conduct toward players in hopes of motivating them," and revealed he'd been in counseling on a regular basis over the last decade.
9. Marner's contract saga and the slew of star RFAs
The last thing the Toronto Maple Leafs wanted was a repeat of William Nylander's holdout. Though Mitch Marner's contract negotiation didn't cost the player two months of the season, as Nylander's did, it was yet another prolonged impasse that threatened to derail the team's campaign.
From July 1 until he signed a new contract during the preseason, Marner's situation was a constant source of debate, especially after Nylander's drawn-out negotiations and his disappointing performance following that stalemate. Marner ultimately got his deal done without missing any regular-season games, agreeing to a six-year, $65.36-million pact on Sept. 13.
Though Marner's negotiations dominated headlines, he was just one of several high-profile restricted free agents in a group that also included Mikko Rantanen, Patrik Laine, Matthew Tkachuk, Brayden Point, and Brock Boeser. There was even an offer sheet, as underwhelming as the Montreal Canadiens' attempt to poach Sebastian Aho from the Hurricanes ultimately was. All of the young phenoms eventually re-signed with their respective clubs, but this RFA crop was the biggest subplot of the offseason.
8. Stars fire Montgomery for 'unprofessional conduct'
When the Dallas Stars dismissed head coach Jim Montgomery on Dec. 10 due to "unprofessional conduct," they provided few specifics beyond general manager Jim Nill's assurances that it didn't involve present or past players, Stars employees, or a criminal investigation. It also reportedly had nothing to with an awkward radio interview Montgomery gave five days earlier.
The lack of clarity left many wondering what Montgomery did to warrant the pink slip - and arguably made the situation worse than it would've been had the team disclosed its reasoning, even in general terms, at the outset.
7. 'Bunch of jerks'
Don Cherry wasn't the first pundit to criticize Carolina's unique "Storm Surge" celebrations, but the team embraced its new moniker when the then-"Coach's Corner" personality dubbed the Hurricanes "a bunch of jerks" in February. Turning the phrase into a rallying cry, they projected it onto their home ice, printed it on T-shirts, and adopted it as a nickname en route to an unexpected appearance in the Eastern Conference Final.
6. Leafs fire Babcock amid losing skid
It had become inevitable following six straight losses, but that didn't make the Maple Leafs' firing of Mike Babcock on Nov. 20 any less significant.
The former Team Canada bench boss had been the NHL's highest-paid head coach after Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan signed him to a mammoth eight-year, $50-million pact ($6.25 million annually) in the spring of 2015.
In retrospect, though, it was only a matter of time, as Babcock was hired before Kyle Dubas took over as general manager. Dubas' handpicked choice, Sheldon Keefe, was the obvious successor, having guided Toronto's AHL club to a championship in 2018 after working with Dubas in the OHL.
As it turned out, Babcock's name would resurface in the headlines before the year was out.
5. Babcock's treatment of players
Days after the Maple Leafs fired Babcock, Marner and the former head coach both confirmed a report that Babcock had shamed the then-rookie in 2016-17, asking Marner to rank the club's players by work ethic before sharing the list with the team.
Further accounts of Babcock's poor behavior soon followed, dating back to his days behind the Detroit bench. Former Red Wings forward Johan Franzen called Babcock "the worst person I have ever met," and confirmed Chris Chelios' claim Babcock verbally abused Franzen in 2012.
4. Lightning come crashing down
Nobody expected the Tampa Bay Lightning to have any trouble dispatching the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs after the Bolts put together one of the most dominant regular seasons in NHL history.
But the upstart Blue Jackets flipped the script. A Columbus team that had decided to keep multiple stars with expiring contracts and go all-in for a postseason run pulled off an utterly stunning sweep.
Lightning head coach Jon Cooper later lamented the fact that, in his view, his club didn't play much meaningful hockey ahead of the playoffs because it had been so far ahead of every other squad. But no matter the explanation, Tampa Bay's collapse was one of the most surprising developments of 2019.
3. Don Cherry's demise
Cherry had a long history of making inappropriate comments during broadcasts with both the CBC and Sportsnet, without being held accountable. But the latter network finally took action in November after the polarizing pundit gave an offensive rant about immigrants in Canada during a "Coach's Corner" segment ahead of Remembrance Day.
Sportsnet initially apologized for Cherry's comments without firing him, but it let him go one day later amid massive public uproar.
Allowed to remain on the air over the years despite previous improprieties including comments about women and Europeans, Cherry was removed after nearly four decades in his role.
2. Blues go worst to first
In January, the St. Louis Blues had the worst record in the NHL. Then, they listened to "Gloria" at a Philadelphia bar, and the rest was history.
OK, it wasn't that simple. But St. Louis' midseason turnaround and eventual Stanley Cup triumph was nothing short of remarkable. Craig Berube's squad climbed out of the league's basement, qualified for the playoffs, and claimed hockey's ultimate prize thanks to a balanced roster and the emergence of steady rookie goaltender Jordan Binnington.
After suffering three final-round sweeps in their first three years of existence, the Blues won their first game in a Stanley Cup Final. They then secured the first championship in franchise history with a Game 7 victory over the Boston Bruins, who defeated St. Louis the last time the Blues reached the final in 1970.
1. Aliu sparks a reckoning
As impressive as the Blues' unexpected title was, another story transcended single-season results and was unquestionably the biggest hockey narrative of 2019.
In late November, former NHL player Akim Aliu, who was born in Nigeria, accused then-Calgary Flames head coach Bill Peters of directing the N-word toward him multiple times when Peters coached Aliu with the ECHL's Rockford IceHogs in 2009-10. Two former teammates corroborated Aliu's allegations, and Peters resigned from his role with the Flames within days of Aliu publicizing the incident.
Aliu shared his story after Babcock's treatment of Marner came to light. His revelations, which preceded Crawford's and Montgomery's situations, brought heightened awareness to coaching abuse around the league and prompted others to come forward with their own accounts; former Hurricanes blue-liner Michal Jordan soon accused Peters of kicking him and punching another player in the head when Peters was behind the bench in Carolina.
The NHL later met with Aliu and has since announced new steps to address inappropriate conduct, underscoring the impact of Aliu's courageous admission and cementing him as the central figure in the league's ongoing efforts to create a more inclusive environment.
In TV, as in life, trying situations can occasionally be optimized by choosing to focus on the positive.
Jan. 1, 2018 was a frosty afternoon in New York City. Beers froze over in the stands at Citi Field, where 41,821 people layered up to watch the Rangers and Sabres play hockey outdoors. Jon Miller had never been colder at a sporting event, no trivial distinction for the president of programming at NBC Sports and NBCSN.
"But I'll tell you what's amazing," Miller said. "They had a sellout crowd and the fans had a great time, and everybody really enjoyed it. To me, that's the mark of a great event."
The Jan. 1 scene Miller will take in later this week promises to be a little easier on the skin. He's gearing up for the 12th edition of the NHL Winter Classic, the recurring New Year's Day contest that Miller and his production team are helping usher into the 2020s - with a visit to, of all places, hallowed college football territory.
When the Predators and Stars face off Wednesday at the Cotton Bowl, the Winter Classic will be far removed from the Mets' ballpark in Queens and from the home of the NFL's Buffalo Bills, the stadium where the series debuted in a snowstorm to considerable fanfare back on New Year's Day 2008. Nashville at Dallas constitutes perhaps the least conventional matchup in the game's history. An Original Six team has appeared in all but two previous Classics, and both of those outliers included the magnetic presence of Sidney Crosby.
Understandably, this will also be the first Winter Classic - and one of very few outdoor games, period - to be played in a southern state. Yet the Cotton Bowl is an oddly fitting locale to jumpstart a new decade of NHL action, and not solely because of the league's perennial desire to grow the sport in summery settings.
Before the Winter Classic entrenched itself as a fixture of the sports calendar - the NHL's answer to the NFL's Thanksgiving slate and the NBA's monopolization of Christmas Day - it came to life as a product of Miller's imagination. He thought up the conceptual contours of the game in 2004, when NBC, newly in possession of NHL telecast rights, was searching for two distinct forms of programming: a way to showcase its hockey coverage and a production of any kind to attract eyeballs on New Year's Day.
Among the factors that led Miller to suggest that a yearly outdoor game could bridge that gap: he sensed that college football was no longer predominant across all hours of Jan. 1. After all, the Cotton Bowl Classic - once a marquee TV event of the early afternoon - had moved away from that year's holiday to be played on Jan. 2.
"The Rose Bowl was on but it was late, and the Orange Bowl was on in prime time. But the other big games on New Year's Day had all kind of disappeared," Miller recalled during a recent phone call. "My feeling (was that) we had a window there to do something."
A heap of hindrances prevented the Winter Classic from being organized immediately. The 2004-05 lockout wiped out what would have been NBC's first full season as the NHL's U.S. broadcaster. Commissioner Gary Bettman liked the idea of the Classic, Miller said, but was unsure teams would participate. When marketing executive John Collins, a friend of Miller's, joined the NHL late in 2006, he championed the concept within the league but soon reported back to Miller that only one club, the Sabres, was willing to host such a game.
Ever since that 2008 game in Buffalo, though, the Winter Classic has largely come to own its 1 p.m. ET time slot. (The exception: the 2011 Penguins-Capitals matchup that was rescheduled to 8 p.m. for fear it would rain in Pittsburgh earlier in the day.) Just about every team in the league has expressed interest in featuring in the series, according to Miller. The process now calls for cities to submit formal bids to host the game, a far cry from the Sabres' involvement by default.
"I don't envy Bettman and (deputy commissioner) Bill Daly having to make those decisions on where they go to play," Miller said.
The league's decision to broaden its sights as far south as Texas is how the Predators and Stars - nontraditional franchises that are nevertheless strong attendance draws - have each come to appear in their first outdoor game of any kind. (After Jan. 1, six of the NHL's 31 teams won't have played outdoors: Arizona, Carolina, Columbus, Florida, Tampa Bay, and Vegas.) The Cotton Bowl game is the third Winter Classic, and second in a row, to be held in a cavernous college football stadium.
More than 80,000 tickets to Predators-Stars sold out in a matter of hours back in the spring, meaning Wednesday's game should feature the second-largest crowd in league history. The 2019 Winter Classic (Bruins vs. Blackhawks) accommodated 76,126 fans at Notre Dame Stadium; the 2014 game pitted the Maple Leafs against the Red Wings before 105,491 people at Michigan's Big House.
Miller said that in seasons to come, he'd like to see the Winter Classic return to past host locations for the first time. He thinks Buffalo deserves another game, and Fenway Park was a great backdrop for Flyers-Bruins in 2010. Though the Notre Dame experience proved there's no shortage of viable venues.
"I think what the league is finding now is that they can go to places that don't necessarily have a hometown team, like South Bend," Miller said. "Maybe Penn State, State College is in the mix. Who knows? That's a decision that (the NHL will) have to make, but there are certainly a lot of different places that would do a good job of this."
Wherever it's played, the game now gives Miller annual occasion to appreciate how his brainchild project - "his baby," as an NBC spokesperson put it - became something greater than a novelty. He figures the competitiveness of the series has helped it sustain: nine of 11 Winter Classics have been decided by one or two goals, and four lasted beyond regulation. So has buy-in from players, whose excitement at getting to compete outdoors, in the wind and snow and all else the environment entails, tends to be laid plain on their faces.
NHL outdoor games aren't an uncommon sight. This fall's Heritage Classic was played outdoors in Saskatchewan; the next iteration of the Stadium Series is in Colorado in February. But to Miller, New Year's remains a special date: "There's nothing quite like having all of the attention focused on you on a national holiday." And in a landscape in which the NCAA stages 41 bowl games, Miller can return to one irrefutable, and irrefutably positive, truth.