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NHL Winter Classic

Steve Mayer's trip to Cotton Bowl Stadium in 2018 leads to Winter Classic

NHL executive reflects on attending Red River Showdown that prompted idea for outdoor game in Dallas

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / NHL.com Columnist

DALLAS -- The story of how the 2020 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic came to Dallas goes back to the 2018 NHL Draft. While teams selected players at American Airlines Center, NHL chief content officer Steve Mayer visited Cotton Bowl Stadium.

"You know what?" he thought. "This could be pretty cool."

But what clinched the outdoor game between the Dallas Stars and Nashville Predators here Wednesday (2 p.m. ET; NBC, SN, TVAS) was a trip Mayer made to the Red River Showdown between Oklahoma and Texas on Oct. 6, 2018.

Cotton Bowl Stadium is one of the most iconic venues in college football. Built in 1930, it hosted the Cotton Bowl Classic from 1937 through 2009, until the game moved to Arlington, Texas. It sits on the site of the State Fair of Texas and hosts the Red River Showdown during the fair each year.

The Stars had made a bid for a Winter Classic, and the Dallas Sports Commission invited Mayer to visit for that reason. But Mayer came alone and didn't wear NHL apparel as he took in the game and the fair.

"Nobody knew who I was," said Mayer, who oversees the NHL's big events. "I went behind the scenes. I wanted to see the whole place."

Mayer spent part of the game on the field. He sat in the press box for a while. He walked around the fair, ate a corn dog and knocked back a Texas beverage.

"I had the whole experience," Mayer said.

And what an experience it was.

A crowd of 92,300 packed Cotton Bowl Stadium on a beautiful day, half crimson for Oklahoma, half burnt orange for Texas. Quarterback Kyler Murray rallied the seventh-ranked Sooners with three touchdowns in a six-minute span, but the 19th-ranked Longhorns won 48-45 on a 40-yard field goal by kicker Cameron Dicker with nine seconds left.

"I've been to a lot of college football games, and I've always watched the game from afar on TV," Mayer said. "And to come here and see Oklahoma and Texas fans split right at the 50-yard line, you just feel the energy."

And to see the Midway at the State Fair at the same time …

Well, that did it.

"The fans here, the folks that live here, they know a big event," Mayer said. "They're used to it, and they do it really, really well. So we had great confidence that we could put on our show and do it in a really cool way, a big way."

 

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There were questions and challenges. What about the lack of some modern amenities at the stadium? What about ticket sales?

But Mayer grew up loving New Year's Day bowl games, and he went to NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and pitched the angle of bringing a New Year's Day game back to Cotton Bowl Stadium.

"Gary was the one that said, 'You know what? Let's do it,' " Mayer said.

The next step was negotiating contracts. The NHL had to buy a home game from the Stars, rent Cotton Bowl Stadium, figure out how to build suites and more. After that was done, the event was announced on Jan. 1, 2019. The Predators were announced as the Stars' opponent Jan. 25.

"One of the secrets I don't think people know is that when we started out, we were configuring the Cotton Bowl for 65,000 seats," Mayer said. "We had ideas about staging and graphics that were going to take about a third of this place out of play, because I'll be honest, we didn't think we could sell 85,000 tickets.

"And then the tickets went on sale."

Video: How Cotton Bowl prepped for 2020 Winter Classic

They went fast after they became available to season-ticket holders April 1 and the general public April 23. This game will draw the second-largest crowd in NHL history, behind the 105,491 at the 2014 Winter Classic between the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

"We were like, 'This is unbelievable,' " Mayer said. "I mean, tickets were selling like mad, and one by one we were opening up sections. You know, to have 85,000 people here to watch an outdoor NHL game is something we're really proud of."

Mayer said he thinks he has made 10 trips to Dallas to plan this event, the whole NHL events team four or five. One trip was during the State Fair this year. That was when the League got more specific about some of its plans.

Not only will the Midway be open as part of the Truly Hard Seltzer NHL PreGame, the boots belonging to Big Tex, the 55-foot talking cowboy who welcomes visitors to the fair each year, will sit alongside the rink with a rodeo clown and longhorn steer. The second intermission will bring the fair inside the bowl with a rodeo clown, sword swallower and fire breather, plus trick roping, horse riding and more.

It will be like the Red River Showdown and the State Fair of Texas. At the same time, it will be like nothing anyone has ever seen before.

"This is proving that, OK, other markets can support these games," Mayer said.

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