DALLAS -- Everything's bigger in Texas, they say. Well, the 2020 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic will go down as the biggest demonstration of the growth of hockey and passion for the sport in the South. It will go down as the biggest party at an outdoor game too.
Consider that a team from Dallas, Texas, hosted a team from Nashville, Tennessee, at Cotton Bowl Stadium, an iconic college football venue on the site of the State Fair of Texas, and drew 85,630 people, the second-biggest crowd in NHL history.
The fans didn't just see the Dallas Stars defeat the Nashville Predators 4-2 on Wednesday. As if they were at the State Fair, they ate fried food and rode rides and played games on the Midway. They saw jugglers and bull riders and sword swallowers and rope twirlers. They saw horses and sheep and longhorns. They even saw pig races.
[RELATED: Complete 2020 NHL Winter Classic coverage]
"Top that," Stars center Tyler Seguin said.
This wasn't the NHL's first rodeo. It was the 29th outdoor game and 12th Winter Classic. But it was the first NHL game like a rodeo.
"I think the atmosphere speaks for itself," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said. "It has been nothing short of spectacular."
It exceeded expectations. NHL chief content officer Steve Mayer, who oversees these events, said the League originally planned to stage the Cotton Bowl for 65,000 seats because it didn't think it could sell more tickets. But tickets sold so well that the League opened more sections.
Video: NSH@DAL: Stars, Predators enter the Cotton Bowl
Now the attendance for this game ranks behind only the 2014 Winter Classic, which drew 105,491 to Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Michigan, for a game between two Original Six teams from classic winter markets: the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs.
Not only were there tens of thousands of Stars fans, there were tens of thousands of Predators fans too. Commissioner Bettman said there were more people from Nashville than would fit in Bridgestone Arena there.
"The only complaints that we've been getting is that it's been too crowded, and in this business, you'll take that," Commissioner Bettman said. "So it's been a great experience."
Video: NSH@DAL: Stars erupt for three goals in 3rd for lead
The NHL goes over the top to make each of these events unique and give them a sense of place. Here, it took advantage of the State Fair to enhance the festivities and used a western theme to stage the field.
The players embraced it. The Stars sauntered into the stadium looking like cowboys, after center Jamie Benn and goalie Ben Bishop organized a team shopping trip to Lucchese. Many wore the belt-buckle 2020 Winter Classic logo as actual belt buckles. The Predators dressed in all black as an ode to Johnny Cash.
"Howdy," Bishop said.
Video: Predators, Stars arrive at Cotton Bowl in style
Fans showed up early for the Truly Hard Seltzer NHL PreGame at the State Fair, dressed in Stars gear honoring the old Dallas Texans and Predators gear honoring the old Dixie Flyers. They lined up for food like Fletcher's Corny Dogs and fried Oreos, for rides like the Texas Star Ferris wheel and the pirate ship, for games like Flip-A-Chick and Balloon Pop, and for the Stanley Cup.
"This is exactly what we wanted it to be," Stars president Brad Alberts said amid the crowd.
Once inside the stadium, the fans listened to Jake Hoot, winner of "The Voice," sing the national anthem before the flyover. As they do at American Airlines Center, Dallas fans shouted, "Stars!" Only now there were many more of them.
"I mean, it gets me going every time in our rink," Stars center Jason Dickinson said. "But here it was just another level."
The conditions were about as perfect as the NHL could have imagined: overcast and 54 degrees Fahrenheit at face-off. Fans could sit comfortably on the bench seats relatively close to the field.
Amid everything else -- from Cotton Bowl Hall of Famers Troy Aikman and Ricky Williams dropping the puck to Nashville duo Dan + Shay performing during the first intermission -- the highlights were the pig races. The champion was the namesake of Predators defenseman Roman Josi: "Ro-'HAM' Josi."
"I saw it on the big screen at one point," Dickinson said. "I had to look away. I knew I'd get in trouble if I kept watching."
Video: NSH@DAL: Olczyk cheers on piglet race contenders
Somehow the players focused on the Central Division race. The Predators took a 2-0 lead with two power-play goals in the first period. But the Stars cut it to 2-1 when forward Blake Comeau scored at 18:52 of the second, igniting the crowd. As they do at American Airlines Center, they chanted, "Dallas! Stars! Dallas! Stars!" Only now, again, there were many more of them.
"When [Comeau] scored, I thought that was great timing right before the third to get the crowd going," Benn said. "We kept it rolling from there."
The Stars took over with three goals in the third period. In the end, they raised their sticks to the fans, then took an impromptu team picture at center ice. They won more than a regular-season game.
"I don't know who initiated it," Seguin said. "But seeing the crowd taking it in after getting the business side done and taking a team picture after a great win in front of our fans, that was something I'll never forget."