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Ranking the 10 NHL Winter Classics

The New York Rangers' overtime win over the Buffalo Sabres on Monday closed the book on the first 10 years of the NHL Winter Classic, the Jan. 1 (or thereabouts) outdoor hockey game that began as a novelty became an institution -- and then the inspiration for copious amounts of eye-rolling when the Chicago Blackhawks were announced for their fourth appearance next season.

With 10 games in the books, we figured it was a good time for a subjective ranking of their relative greatness. We've assigned a score of 1 to 10 in three categories for each outdoor game. There's Environment, which covers the novelty of the venue and the elements that challenged teams during the game; there's Hype, which covers the buzz leading up to the Winter Classic as well as the allure of the teams involved; and then there's the Game itself, and whether it was competitive, boring or rendered unwatchable by the conditions.

Here are the top 10 Winter Classic events in NHL history -- because there's only been 10 of them:

10. 2016: Gillette Stadium, Montreal Canadiens 5,Boston Bruins 1 (14 points)


Environment: 5
Hype: 7
Game: 2

The matchup was a course correction from the 2015 edition, as the NHL jumped back into the rivalry business with this Original Six battle. The fans ate it up: 67,000 tickets were sold for the Winter Classic and there were 42,000 in the house for the alumni game held the same weekend in Foxborough.

But that game ... well, at least the Bruins got a participation ribbon. The Canadiens, with backup goalie and Massachusetts native Mike Condon in net, built a 3-0 lead by the 17:20 mark of the second period, and that was that. At an unremarkable venue with unremarkable weather, and with a Canadian market in an unremarkable game, this was the lowest-rated Winter Classic to date in the U.S.

The weekend would also be remembered for heartbreaking reasons: Denna Laing, playing for the Boston Pride in the first Outdoor Women's Classic, suffered a significant spinal cord injury in a collision with the boards on the eve of the Winter Classic and was stretchered off the ice. To this day, she continues to rehabilitate from that injury.

9. 2017: Busch Stadium,St. Louis Blues 4,Chicago Blackhawks 1 (15 points)


Environment: 5
Hype: 5
Game: 5

One almost wishes the rain that fell earlier on Jan. 2 had continued, because at least then this game would have had some personality. Instead, St. Louis dominated the last 40 minutes, treating the Blackhawks -- by this time, outdoor game overexposed -- like a team of jobbers that were hired to put over the local talent.

The NHL deserves credit for finally putting an outdoor game in St. Louis. It gave us an alumni game that featured Wayne Gretzky, Brett Hull and Martin Brodeur on the same team. It gave us perhaps the best St. Louis Blues jerseys ever created. And it gave us copious amounts of Nelly.

But the NHL also hurt the game's buzz with its scheduling: Putting the Maple Leafs and Red Wings in an outdoor game in Toronto on Jan. 1 -- and a good one at that -- before playing this game on Jan. 2. They wanted the Classic on a Monday to avoid Week 17 of the NFL schedule; they ended up pushing a game that was already struggling for hype into obscurity.

8. 2011: Heinz Field, Washington Capitals 3,Pittsburgh Penguins 1 (16 points)


Environment: 3
Hype: 9
Game: 4

The hype for this game was off the charts: Two blood rival teams, and the NHL's two biggest stars in Sidney Crosby vs. Alex Ovechkin. Plus, the Penguins and Capitals were featured on the first season of HBO's "24/7" series dedicated to the Winter Classic, which remains the gold standard for the genre. (We'll always remember you, sauce-faced, profanity-laced Bruce Boudreau.)

Alas, the hype was not met. The 2011 Winter Classic will be remembered for two reasons. First, for having an 8 p.m. start time thanks to concerns about rain. At first, "under the lights" seemed cool, until one realized it killed much of the charm of the event.

Second, and more than somewhat related: The injury Sidney Crosby suffered in a collision with Dave Steckel of the Capitals, which contributed to his missing most of 2011 with concussion-like symptoms.

OK, the event will also be remembered as the most memorable game of Eric Fehr's career, scoring the Capitals' second and third goals. But that's not good enough to elevate it in our rankings.

7. 2015: Nationals Park, Washington Capitals 3,Chicago Blackhawks 2 (17 points)


Environment: 5
Hype: 3
Game: 9

Remember the hype the Capitals had for their game against the Penguins? Now picture the absolute opposite, and you'd have the lead-up to their game against the Blackhawks.

After years of pitting geographic and traditional rivals against each other, the NHL made the truly bizarre choice to pit teams from opposite conferences with no discernible association in its marquee event. The result was a game seen by few people outside the D.C. area -- the 3.47 million viewers in the U.S. was, at the time, the event's smallest audience -- which is a shame because it was one of the most exciting Winter Classics in history.

The Capitals took a 2-0 lead, and the Blackhawks rallied to tie before the third period. Troy Brouwer, who won a Stanley Cup with Chicago, scored the game-winning power-play goal with 13 seconds left in regulation to send a partisan crowd of nearly 43,000 fans into hysterics.

Gorgeous stadium, too, even if the "40 degrees and sunny" weather didn't make for memorable conditions.

6. 2018: Citi Field, New York Rangers 3, Buffalo Sabres 2 (21 points)


Environment: 6
Hype: 6
Game: 9

Call it recency bias, call it what you will, but the 2018 Winter Classic delivered another of the event's better games while riding a wave of hype surrounding the 10th anniversary of the first Winter Classic in Buffalo (more on that in a bit).

Freezing temperatures at game time made for some adventurous puck play, and the annoying shadows that made TV viewing a bit difficult in the first period were gone by the second. The Rangers took a 2-0 lead in the first, and the Sabres rallied with goals in the second and third. For the first time since 2014, the game went to overtime, where J.T. Miller ended it for the Rangers.

From a fashion standpoint, it was one of the most striking Winter Classics, as the Rangers' sweaters were the definition of "don't judge them until you see them on the ice" and the Sabres' ones are unimpeachable, as usual.

After a couple of duds, a cool return to form for the Classic on a frigid New York day.

5. 2010: Fenway Park,Boston Bruins 2,Philadelphia Flyers 1 (23 points)


Environment: 8
Hype: 8
Game: 7

This game was notable for its firsts. Like the first overtime game-winning goal in Classic history, scored by the Bruins' Marco Sturm at 1:57, which followed Mark Recchi's game-tying goal late in the third period. For the first time in three Winter Classics, the home team actually won, and in dramatic fashion.

This was also the first time the event was used to announce the U.S. Olympic team, as Bruins goalie Tim Thomas made the cut. Danny Syvret scored his first NHL goal in his first outdoor game. And, of course, the first fight in Winter Classic history occurred, between Shawn Thornton and Dan Carcillo, though one could not have expected anything else from the Flyers and Bruins.

But the low-scoring affair wasn't always the prettiest hockey to watch; and if you were at Fenway, the question was how much you could have seen of it, considering the awkward sightlines and seats that felt a mile away. We don't want to say that Fenway Park wasn't built for hockey, but it makes Barclays Center look like Maple Leaf Gardens by comparison.

This Classic also gets knocked down a peg because, unfortunately, the NHL had just done a game in a historic baseball stadium -- and a more entertaining game at that.

4. 2009: Wrigley Field, Detroit Red Wings 6, Chicago Blackhawks 4 (24 points)


Environment: 9
Hype: 9
Game: 6

The first Winter Classic was in the middle of a nondescript football stadium. The second one changed our perception of where this gimmick could go, as the NHL put the Blackhawks on ice in Wrigley Field in front of nearly 41,000 fans and fake ivy in the outfield wall.

Remember when the Winter Classic was novel and cool? When you'd turn on the game and geek out over the jerseys -- the Red Wings wearing that giant "D" on the front -- and the aesthetics, like hockey fans cramming the rooftops across from the stadium? Remember when even the hokey stuff was charming, like Ryne Sandberg singing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" with Stan Mikita?

Also: scoring! The Blackhawks built a 3-1 lead by the end of the first period, and the Red Wings roared back with five straight goals to build a 6-3 lead by 3:24 of the third. OK, maybe too much scoring, as the game was basically done after that, but scoring nonetheless.

Why doesn't the Wrigley game rank higher? Frankly, because it wasn't "Wrigley" enough. The temperature wasn't much colder than it is for a Cubs game in April. Despite Pierre McGuire's comments about "wind-assisted goals," it wasn't all that much of a factor in the Windy City.

But most of all: This was the defending Stanley Cup champions against the new puppy nipping at their heels in the Western Conference. You almost felt cheated not seeing these two battle it out in a vacuum instead of a baseball stadium.

3. 2012: Citizens Bank Park, New York Rangers 3, Philadelphia Flyers 2 (25 points)


Environment: 7
Hype: 9
Game: 9

This really shouldn't have been as incredible as it was. There was no iconic venue, as the Philadelphia Phillies' picturesque stadium was less than a decade old. The weather didn't exactly put the "Winter" in the Classic: The game was delayed by sun glare and was eventually played in 45-degree weather with some spotty drizzle. While the Rangers were in their first outdoor game, the Flyers had played in one two years earlier.

But wow, was this fun. There was the lead-up to the game on HBO "24/7," which introduced us to the cosmic meanderings of Ilya Bryzgalov and the snarly puppy dog that was John Tortorella. There was the alumni game that saw Eric Lindros make an emotional return to the Flyers organization. There was controversy, as Bryzgalov sat for the Classic in favor of Sergei Bobrovsky in a surprise move. (I can still vividly recall Bryz talking to the media on one side of the locker room, playing coy about who was starting, while Bob was on the other side of the room revealing it was him.)

The game itself was one of the best-played in the Classic from the second period on, right down to the Daniel Briere penalty shot that was stopped by Henrik Lundqvist with 19.6 seconds remaining to preserve the win -- a penalty Tortorella claimed was an NBC conspiracy to extend the game into overtime, an accusation that earned him a hefty fine.

As a whole, perhaps the most complete and satisfying Winter Classic, from the run-up to the game itself. But it lacked that certain something that our final two events had.

2. 2008: Ralph Wilson Stadium, Pittsburgh Penguins 2, Buffalo Sabres 1 (26 points)


Environment: 10
Hype: 10
Game: 6

Ask any player and they'll tell you: They would travel back in time and play in that first Winter Classic if given the chance.

"I was playing junior at the time in Erie, down the road, and I remember watching that. A lot of people I know went to it and talked about it. Now living in Buffalo, and being a Bills fan, I can't believe there was a game at that stadium. And I can't believe it was 10 years ago," said Ryan O'Reilly of the Sabres.

Close your eyes and think about the Winter Classic, and this game is what you see: 71,217 frozen puckheads, some of them shirtless, watching those baby blue Penguins jerseys peek out through the consistently falling snow. Seeing the players' breath. Seeing them battle the elements. In the end, seeing Sidney Crosby win the game in the shootout with the flurries falling, as if Gary Bettman himself had scripted it.

The hype was off the charts for the game, just to see whether the NHL could pull off a rink build in seven days and an event of this magnitude. That it launched both the Winter Classic and Stadium Series franchises is a testament to its success.

The only reason this wasn't numero uno on our ranking is because the game itself was as messy as the conditions -- or has nostalgia deleted all those lengthy Zamboni and ice-repair delays from your memory bank?

Which is why No. 1 could only be this game ...

1. 2014: Michigan Stadium, Toronto Maple Leafs 3, Detroit Red Wings 2 (28 points)


Environment: 10
Hype: 10
Game: 8

The Winter Classic in its idyllic form.

Two iconic franchises with history between them, and just history in general: The Leafs and Wings played an alumni game doubleheader at Comerica Park because they had so many darn great players who wanted in.

It was played in an iconic venue, the Big House, that held 105,491 hockey fans that day -- not an outdoor game attendance record, but close enough. The elements were punishing, with snow falling and wind whipping and temperatures that actually froze the ball inside the officials' whistles.

Impossible as it might seem, the game was actually good! Jonathan Bernier saw 43 Red Wings shots sail his way, and Detroit needed a late third-period goal to force overtime. Toronto won in a shootout on a Tyler Bozak tally, sending half the stadium back over the border happy. (It also made the 3.57 million average viewers for CBC's broadcast in Canada, a regular-season record, quite happy.)

It's said there will never be a Winter Classic game like the first one. Well, there will never be another Winter Classic like this one, either. Now, if we can just get the Wings and Leafs to both wear their full-color uniforms in the same game more often ...

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