A few years back the National Hockey League attempted to create a new tradition by playing an outdoor game on New Years Eve. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman foolishly suggested January 1 could become hockey’s day on the sports calendar, because nobody felt the need to remind him that day is already a pretty big day on the sports calendar with college football bowl games. To Bettman’s credit, the NHL Winter Classic has been a bit of a hit since it was first played, and the success of the game has opened doors for other outdoor games with the NHL Stadium Series offering more outdoor games for hockey fans.
To date, two NHL Winter Classic games have been played in college football stadiums; Michigan Stadium in 2014 and Heinz Field in 2011 (I admit, that is a bit of a technicality, as it is also the home to the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers). One more outdoor game has been played at Minnesota’s TCF Bank Stadium (part of the 2016 Stadium series between the Minnesota Wild and Chicago Blackhawks). The trend of outdoor games is not about to go away, and it could be leading to more NHL games being played in college football stadiums. Notre Dame is one school hoping to get that opportunity.
Notre Dame is currently renovating Notre Dame Stadium as part of a campus-wide project. Once it is completed in the summer of 2017, Notre Dame expects to be in the running for a future NHL game.
“Once the Campus Crossroads project is finished, we do anticipate that Notre Dame Stadium will be an excellent venue for more than just Notre Dame football games, but no additional events have yet been scheduled,” Notre Dame athletics director Jack Swarbrick said in a statement to the Chicago Tribune. “And while we would certainly have an interest in exploring the possibility of playing host to outdoor hockey games, we have not had any discussions with the NHL about doing so.”
Last year around this time I put together a list of college football stadiums I believed would be ready to drop the puck for the NHL. Notre Dame Stadium was in my top five, with the Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings making the ideal matchup. I still believe that to be true, and it just dawned on me the NBC connection that would capitalize on it (shame on me, an NBC employee, for not thinking of this earlier). With NBC being broadcast partners for Notre Dame home football games and the NHL, there would be a full fall of promotion for the Winter Classic.
Notre Dame is a solid hockey school and the image of Touchdown Jesus watching the puck drop in front of him is visually stunning. There is no question Notre Dame Stadium has seen its share of history, and an outdoor game inside the historic venue would be quite a draw.
If the NHL continues to organize outdoor games, more of them will eventually make it to a number of college football stadiums. In addition to Notre Dame, it will only be a matter of time before the NHL lays down an ice surface in Beaver Stadium and Ohio Stadium. Penn State‘s Beaver Stadium should host the Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins someday, but Penn State is currently in an evaluation process to weigh future renovation options. Any NHL plans for Beaver Stadium must be place don ice in the meantime. Ohio State’s football stadium, however, has been internally discussed as a future option.
College Football Stadiums to Host Outdoor Hockey Games
- Spartan Stadium (Michigan State): October 6, 2001, Michigan State vs. Michigan
Attendance: 74,554 (First outdoor game in NCAA history)
- Camp Randall Stadium (Wisconsin): February 6, 2010, Wisconsin vs. Bemidji State
Attendance: 55,031 (men), 8,263 (women)
- Michigan Stadium: December 11, 2010, Michigan vs. Michigan State (D3 Adrian vs. Concordia)
Attendance: 104,173 (The Big Chill at the Big House), 1,470 (The Frozen Face-off)
- Heinz Field (Pitt): January 1, 2011, Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Washington Capitals
Attendance: 68,111 (NHL Winter Classic)
- Michigan Stadium (Michigan): January 1, 2014, Detroit Red Wings vs. Toronto Maple Leafs
Attendance: 104,173 (NHL attendance record)
- TCF Bank Stadium (Minnesota): January 17, 2016, Minnesota Gophers vs. Ohio State
- TCF Bank Stadium (Minnesota): February 21, 2016, Minnesota Wild vs. Chicago Blackhawks
UConn’s Rentschler Field also served host to a Hartford Whalers hockey event that included seven different games over a week. Heinz Field is also home to the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers.