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Anticipation high, Winter Classic beginning to take shape for Stars

Dallas gets its first chance to truly imagine what outdoor hockey will look like at Cotton Bowl Stadium

by Mike Heika @MikeHeika / Senior Staff Writer

Gary Bettman joked when he was asked Wednesday if he ever imagined the Winter Classic coming to the Cotton Bowl.

"Oh sure," the NHL Commissioner quipped, "I knew it all along."

The uniqueness of playing an outdoor hockey game in a 90-year-old football stadium in Dallas, Texas was at the center of the discussion when the league held its official press conference to announce that ticket sales to the 2020 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic would begin on April 23.

The fact that the 12th NHL Winter Classic will be held in a southern venue with two teams who have never before played an outdoor game -- Dallas and Nashville -- is one of the reasons the game is happening.

"Every Winter Classic is different," Bettman said. "We've tried to specialize in iconic venues, and this stadium certainly qualifies. There's a nice element of bringing the game back to the Cotton Bowl on New Year's Day because of its extraordinary history."

The league revealed a Western-style belt buckle logo and a desire to honor the country music styles of Texas and Nashville, and also pointed out the event will be more than just a game, with a week's worth of activities and celebrations of hockey in Texas. And with Stars players, and officials from the NHL and NHL Players Association in attendance, there was a chance to truly imagine what an outdoor hockey game will look like played before more than 70,000 people at Cotton Bowl Stadium.

Video: NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman on Cotton Bowl history

"You walk out on that field and you imagine 75,000 people in the stands for a hockey game, it's going to be really cool," said Stars President Brad Alberts, who was the driving force behind push for the game to come to the Cotton Bowl. "The vibe here is terrific, and I think the experience is going to be fantastic."

Alberts said broadcaster Daryl Reaugh brought up another icon of the Stars past that held great memories when he pictured the outdoor game.

"Razor said it's an, older bigger version of Reunion Arena, and he's right," Albert said. "The sightlines are awesome, there are no suites, the upper deck is great. It was really great to let everyone see that today."

Stars players Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, Ben Bishop, John Klingberg and Miro Heiskanen attended the press conference and played soccer and football on the grass field. Benn said he had attended a previous Texas-Oklahoma game and said the experience gave him a glimpse of what to expect.

"I was a couple of rows up in the stands," he said. "Being a spectator for a football game was pretty amazing, so I can only imagine what it will be like for a hockey game with 80,000 people."

The stadium's capacity is 92,100, and the league still is trying to predict the amount of tickets that will be sold, but most estimates come between 70,000 and 80,000. Alberts said they have already had projected interest from more than 50,000 fans. Nashville Predators Chairman Herbert Fritch said he expects his fans will travel well, and Bettman said he liked the fact that both the Stars and Predators are first-time participants and will embrace this opportunity.

 

[WITNESS HISTORY: 2020 NHL Winter Classic tickets to go on sale Tuesday, April 23]

 

"We are so proud of everything the Stars have accomplished in Dallas and the Predators have accomplished in Nashville," Bettman said. "To see the growth of hockey not just at the NHL level, but at all levels is a testament to what our presence in a community can mean. And now to come to this iconic stadium in 2020 and to have two teams who are in, I hate to use the term `non-traditional markets,' it's a testament to them, to the game and most importantly to the fans."

The Stars and Predators are both in the Central Division and could actually play each other in the first round of the playoffs if the seeding works out this season, so the rivalry is just one more twist that can make the game special.

Still, the uniqueness seems to be the biggest selling point.

"I think the country music of Texas and Nashville makes a good overall theme for the game," Alberts said. "You just walk around this building, the Fair Grounds, it's Texas history, so I think we do want to honor that. There's hockey history here, too. Jim Nill said he played over at the Fair Grounds back in the day, and we're certainly going to honor that history, too."

In addition, a Fan Festival and several events -- the Stars are planning hockey tournaments for 250 youth teams to book end the Winter Classic. It will take the work of a lot of entities, including the City of Dallas, the Dallas Sports Commission and administration of Fair Park and Cotton Bowl Stadium.

Dallas Sports Commission Executive Director Monica Paul just finished helping the Stars and NHL play host to the 2019 NHL Entry Draft, and said she believes the city has a great head start on the Winter Classic. Spectra Management has come on board and they have helped host the 2012 Winter Classic in Philadelphia. In addition, new Fair Park General Manager Peter Sullivan helped put on one of the first outdoor hockey games at Michigan State University in 2001.

Video: Stars discuss their excitement for outdoor game

"I think we have great expertise at Cotton Bowl Stadium with Spectra on board and actually having hosted a Winter Classic before, I think we're in good shape," Paul said. "We hosted a great NHL Draft with the Stars, and I think we're all comfortable and have a great working relationship.

"Our expertise is knowing how to operate within our city and get people to come together, and we're going to focus on that and let people show their strengths."

All of which seems to portend great things. While unpredictable weather is always a concern in Dallas, Bettman said that bridge was crossed a while back. The NHL played outdoors in Los Angeles in 2014 with the temperature at 62 degrees, and then topped that in Denver in 2016 at 65 degrees.

"Our ice makers are incredible at what they do," Bettman said. "We've learned a lot over the last 26 or so outdoor games that we've put on, and if we didn't think we can have a successful game here, we wouldn't have announced what we have."

Now, it's just a matter of waiting -- although the anticipation was heightened greatly by a visit to the stadium on Wednesday.

"It's going to be great," Seguin said as he looked around at the stands. "It's going to be breathtaking."

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club.

Mike Heika is a Senior Staff Writer for DallasStars.com and has covered the Stars since 1994. Follow him on Twitter @MikeHeika.

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