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NHL Winter Classic

Winter Classic latest challenge met by NHL Events Department

Mayer, Matsuzaki spearhead effort to turn Stars-Predators in Dallas into New Year's Day spectacle

by Shawn P. Roarke @sroarke_nhl / Senior Director of Editorial

The Nashville Predators and Dallas Stars will play the 2020 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic at Cotton Bowl Stadium on Jan. 1 (2 p.m. ET; NBC, SN, TVAS). In the run-up to the game, and NHL Studios present "Making of The Winter Classic," a daily behind-the-scenes look at how the annual outdoor event comes together. Today we focus on the NHL Events Department that has a hand in almost every facet of the game, particularly the stadium's transformation from a football field to a hockey spectacle.


DALLAS -- Steve Mayer has never been afraid to think outside the box when it comes to ideas.

Nothing is too bold for the NHL executive vice president and chief content officer, who is always dreaming up the next big thing to showcase the sport.

But he understands that a lot of work goes into executing the grand visions. This is most true, perhaps, during the planning and execution each year for the Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic, one of the League's signature events.

"You can come up with the greatest of ideas, but it is those that execute those ideas that make these events great," Mayer said.

The 2020 Winter Classic is Mayer's fourth in his current position and sixth overall.

Like the previous three, Mayer has a few surprises for this edition. It is the job of the NHL Events Department to make them come to fruition.

Dean Matsuzaki, executive vice president of events, is the man who spearheads the effort on the ground.

"I think Steve is very, very much forward thinking in terms of where we're going next, and he also takes the lead on all the creative [decisions], and I'm more the get-it-done guy. Once we figure out what the direction is, we figure out how to make it happen and how to do it on budget."

Video: How Cotton Bowl prepped for 2020 Winter Classic

This time, 25 full-time staff members, along with an army of temporary workers and vendors, have descended upon Cotton Bowl Stadium to bring to life the visions conjured up during the past calendar year.

They will handle all the back-of-the-house duties that are the foundation for the spectacle fans will enjoy on New Year's Day. They are responsible for turning the football field into an unforgettable stage with a regulation ice rink as its crown jewel, as well as all the ancillary duties that accompany that assignment.

Matsuzaki has seen it all in his two decades as a member of the events department and has been intimately involved in the planning and execution of each of the Winter Classic games, beginning with the 2008 edition at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo.

There has been no challenge too big or too small for the events department to execute.

Even the last-minute requests from Mayer to deviate or add to a plan have not been too difficult to accommodate.

"A lot of times, the first reaction is, 'You're crazy,'" Matsuzaki said smiling. "And then we think about it for a little bit and we say, 'OK, here's how we can make this happen.'"

Video: Making of the 2020 Winter Classic logo and grounds

That confidence comes from the institutional knowledge the events department possesses from the journey from the first Winter Classic.

Matsuzaki remembers that first Winter Classic vividly. He remembers the simplicity of the field design, the problems getting even the simplest things accomplished, the celebrations of pulling off the unthinkable.

But he also remembers the evolution that has come from those humble beginnings. How the game's presentation has evolved from the celebration of being outdoors to the ever-growing spectacles that celebrate the themes of the host city. The lessons learned in battling the elements -- be it extreme temperatures, dangerous winds or excessive sunlight -- are now applied each time the weather wreaks havoc with the best laid plans.

Every trick of the trade has been used in executing the 2020 Winter Classic, but the journey has been worth it as New Year's Day approaches and hockey takes center stage in Dallas and in front of a national TV audience.

"I think with all our events, and especially our outdoor games, we want the fans to leave feeling they were part of something special, something big, and, you know, years from now they're going to say, I was there," Matsuzaki said. "We're expecting over 84,000 people here on New Year's Day. We know it's going to be an amazing day for an amazing event."

Main photo caption: Steve Mayer, NHL Executive Vice President and Chief Content Officer, at Cotton Bowl Stadium as preparations are made for the 2020 NHL Winter Classic (Getty Images)

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