If it were up to Henrik Lundqvist, the New York Rangers goaltender would play one outdoor hockey game each season.
Lundqvist made 31 saves and remained undefeated in outdoor NHL games as the Rangers defeated the Buffalo Sabres 3-2 in overtime in front of a sellout crowd of 41,821 at the 2018 Winter Classic on Jan. 1.
“All the people that put this together, the league, and I think they do such a great job,” Lundqvist said. “I could easily play one every year. And I would not be tired of it, because you play the two games, but to get this opportunity in front of so many people and excitement around the game, it doesn’t get old to me.”
The NHL held its first regular-season outdoor game in 2003 between the Montreal Canadiens and Edmonton Oilers on Nov. 22 at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. The league has hosted 24 regular-season outdoor games since: 10 Winter Classic games, eight Stadium Series games, four Heritage Classics, one Centennial Classic, and one NHL100 Classic.
The Winter Classic is the league’s North American equivalent to the Heritage Classic (played between Canadian teams). Winter Classic games are played on or about New Year’s Day; the 2012 and 2017 games were played Jan. 2.
“Just look at the whole Winter Classic and how the NHL puts it on and just to be able to be fortunate for our organization to be part of it and represent our fans back home,” Sabres coach Phil Housley said. “It was just a great experience. I know if you talked to everybody in that room today, obviously would have liked to have the result be different, but it was just a great experience. I think the fans got their money’s worth. It was a great hockey game against a good opponent. And it’s unfortunate somebody had to lose.”
Despite bone-chilling temperatures of 20 degrees (plus wind chill) at puck drop, Citi Field, home to the New York Mets, boasted a sellout crowd of 41,821. The average Winter Classic attendance now stands at 56,917 with a high of 105,491 who attended the 2014 game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor.
The average attendance for the 24 NHL outdoor regular-season games is 53,504.
“You know what, you don’t play that many times outside,” Lundqvist said. “So obviously every game means a lot to you, you want to make the most of it. And it’s game 38 or something for us, but when you’re playing this game, this is it. That’s the only one.
“And you want to make sure you get the two points. You want to make sure you can be able to sit down in a week or this summer or look back as this is a great memory yesterday, today. So you need to win. And we did.”