DALLAS — Ponds don’t typically freeze over in Dallas, but on Wednesday at the Cotton Bowl, one man-made pond did.
The NHL brought the league’s most prestigious regular-season competition to the Lone Star State, making it the southernmost regular-season outdoor hockey game in NHL history — and it did not disappoint. Officially 85,630 fans were in attendance to see the Dallas Stars defeat the Nashville Predators in dramatic fashion on New Year’s Day, making it the second-most attended NHL game in history (behind the 2014 Winter Classic).
Some fans bristled when the league announced an outdoor hockey game in the South, but southern hockey fans are used to it.
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I grew up in the South — and I am proud of that. I also grew up a huge hockey fan when many of my friends were not. When I went to college, I got many awry looks any time professors and classmates asked what I wanted to do for a living and I responded, “I would like to work in hockey media.”
This isn’t their fault. They’re not used to that. It just doesn’t happen. Lakes and ponds in Louisiana don’t freeze over, either, so while it’s true that hockey is different in the South, it is still very much alive.
“Are you sure you want to do hockey?” was the first question one professor asked me following my graduation ceremony. “Yes,” was my answer, plain and simple. Why? Because there is an overlooked pool of passionate hockey fans in the South and I’ve never met a person who watched a live game and was not invested.
So I made it a personal goal of mine to try and bring some of that northern flair for the winter sport to the depths of down south. Daunting a task as it may be, hockey media was the outlet I chose to work in, and the NHL surely recognizes the same untapped potential, which drove them to chose Dallas as the host for the 2020 Winter Classic.
Even some players don’t have the same expectations for southern teams as they do for northern ones. Stars alternate captain Tyler Seguin, who was traded to Dallas by Boston in 2013, admits he didn’t know what to expect.
“I expected cowboy hats and horses running around and everything, the typical stuff,” Seguin said on Tuesday. “But the people we have here, the fan base we have here, I think the NHL saw a bit of it at the NHL draft (in 2018) and liked what they saw and now we’re here for this game and it’s going to be a good day.”
But Seguin wasn’t the only player hesitant about hockey in Dallas. Recently inducted Hall of Famer Sergei Zubov has outwardly admitted that he didn’t want to be traded to Dallas when the Penguins dealt him in 1996. But once here, a Stanley Cup and many great years of hard-fought hockey later, he was forever enshrined in Toronto.
There is a stigma that true hockey fan bases do not — or barely — exist in the South, but that stigma is fading.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman stated that more Predators fans were in attendance at the Cotton Bowl than could fit in their hometown Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, which has a capacity of 20,000. So not only are there legitimate fan bases for these southern teams, but dedicated ones as well.
“First of all, how awesome is that?” Predators head coach Peter Laviolette said about the number of fans expected at Cotton Bowl Stadium. “To have that many fans and have it sell out the way it did down here in Texas … it says a lot, I think, about the growth of the sport, in general, to be in Texas against a team in Nashville and close to 90,000 people that want to watch a hockey game outdoors is awesome so we’re really excited about that.”
“It’s awesome to see how the fans have responded to it with all of the ticket sales and jersey sales,” Stars forward Joe Pavelski said of the Winter Classic being in Dallas. “It’s been a tremendous fan base since I got here and it’s going to carry over, I think, into [the Winter Classic] game.”
When Dallas hosted the 2018 NHL draft, it gave the city and all of its hockey fans their first opportunity to showcase how real their passion for the fastest game on ice truly is in Texas. Then, holding true to “everything’s bigger in Texas,” they went all out with Winter Classic festivities that included but were not limited to Texas State Fair rides, pig races, fried treats and hockey-themed games just outside Cotton Bowl Stadium for fans of all ages.
Ultimately, the event was a major hit and successfully kicked off the new decade in impressive fashion.
Still, the challenge exists. Even after the ice melts and the grass is uncovered, the media leaves and the fans retire to their homes, hopefully, an impression has been made — one of resiliency and one of passion.
For southern hockey fans, this was more than a game. This was a statement that we are here, we are loud and we are proud. Whether hailing from Dallas, Nashville or any of the other southern cities that the NHL calls home for one of its 31 franchises, remember not to overlook our passion.