The NHL will play its first outdoor game in North Carolina on Saturday night as the Carolina Hurricanes and Washington Capitals will face off in Raleigh in the 2023 edition of the league's Stadium Series.
With the NHL taking an outdoor game to a new locale, that got us thinking about where the league could play more Winter Classic or Stadium Series games in the future. Even though the league has been doing this regularly since 2008, there is still a lot of untapped potential.
There are several teams that have yet to play in an outdoor game, but that could be easily solved by playing games in some fun and iconic locations. On top of that, the NHL could start tapping into more college football markets to create some unique neutral-site matchups.
Here is where the NHL should go for future outdoor games:
Raymond James Stadium | Tampa, Florida
The elevator pitch for this game is as follows: It's a hockey game. In Florida. In a stadium with a pirate ship.
This game practically sells itself. The Panthers have yet to play in an outdoor game, and their rivalry with the Lightning is becoming one of the best in the NHL. The league needs to strike while the iron is hot and both these teams are relevant on a national level.
Will there be concerns about keeping quality ice in the Florida climate? Sure, but the NHL has already played outdoor games in Los Angeles and Santa Clara, Calif. Those places aren't exactly known for sweater weather. It would take around-the-clock effort from the ice crew and a disgustingly high electric bill, but the NHL could find a way to make it work. Besides, everyone in the NHL media will be looking for an excuse to get somewhere warm in January or February.
Lambeau Field | Green Bay, Wisconsin
Considering how many of America's iconic stadiums have hosted outdoor games, it is a little surprising that Lambeau Field has yet to be featured. It's a central location for two great hockey markets, and fans from Chicago and Minnesota will have the chance to see their team win in Green Bay.
If there is a downside to this game, it will probably be Blackhawks fatigue. Chicago has already been featured in six outdoor games, and the franchise is just starting its rebuild in earnest. The Wild just played in the 2022 Winter Classic, but that was only their second appearance.
Ultimately, I think the opportunity to drop the puck at Lambeau outweighs what might be seen as a pedestrian matchup.
Neyland Stadium | Knoxville, Tennessee
The matchup: Nashville Predators vs. Carolina Hurricanes
As the NHL starts to run out of NFL and MLB stadiums to visit, college football stadiums can provide a new frontier.
Thus far, six college football stadiums have been used as a location for an NHL outdoor game: Huntington Bank Stadium (Minnesota), Michigan Stadium, Notre Dame Stadium, Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, Falcon Stadium (Air Force) and Carter-Finley Stadium (NC State). There are still so many college football cathedrals that the NHL has at its disposal, and Neyland Stadium is one of them.
The Predators did just host the 2022 Stadium Series in Nashville, and the Hurricanes are hosting the event this year, so the league may wait a while to feature these two teams. When it does, Knoxville would be an ideal location to spotlight a couple of non-traditional markets. It is less than three hours down I-40 from Nashville and less than six hours down I-40 from Raleigh.
In the sake of full disclosure, this is a homer pick from a University of Tennessee alumnus, but it could be a cool way to grow the game. Featuring the Predators and Hurricanes at a neutral site would give people in East Tennessee and Western North Carolina the chance to see NHL action in a gorgeous setting.
Ohio Stadium | Columbus, Ohio
Speaking of legendary college football stadiums, the Columbus Blue Jackets have yet to play in an outdoor game, and they have one right in their backyard.
I understand that the Blue Jackets may not be the biggest draw for a national audience, but these Stadium Series games should be less about TV ratings and more about giving fans an entertaining and unique in-person experience. Columbus fans haven't had that opportunity, but the NHL can change that by visiting the home of the Ohio State Buckeyes.
The Penguins would be a natural fit for this game because Columbus is only about three hours away, and it would be a battle of Metropolitan Division foes. Pittsburgh has played in six outdoor games already, but I doubt anyone would complain about watching Sidney Crosby and Johnny Gaudreau go head-to-head at The Horseshoe.
Chase Field | Phoenix, Arizona
Let's keep the small-market love rolling by giving an outdoor game to the Coyotes, and make it a desert rivalry game against the Golden Knights.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is intent on keeping the Coyotes in Arizona, and playing a Stadium Series game in Phoenix would be a way to build some enthusiasm among the local fan base.
Aside from the benefits of creating some hockey buzz in a smaller market, Arizona is just one of the most gorgeous states in America. Just imagine the sun going down over the retractable roof at Chase Field as the Coyotes step out of the dugout in their kachina jerseys. Outdoor games don't get much more aesthetically pleasing than that.
Don't worry about the ice either. It's a dry heat.
LaVell Edwards Stadium | Provo, Utah
The matchup: Vegas Golden Knights vs. Colorado Avalanche
For those who may not be as familiar with college football, Lavell Edwards Stadium on BYU's campus provides one of the best backdrops in the entire sport. With the Rocky Mountains all around the stadium, the biggest problem might be keeping everyone's eyes on the ice.
Aside from the beautiful setting, this location would give the NHL the chance to feature two of the best teams in the Western Conference: the Avalanche and the Golden Knights. The biggest hurdle for this game might be the fact that it is a decent trip from both Denver and Las Vegas, but maybe they could play a pair of outdoor games to give the fans their money's worth.
If Provo is too far out of the way for the NHL's liking, I will also accept this matchup at Empower Field at Mile High in Denver.
Autzen Stadium | Eugene, Oregon
Here is another fantastic college football location. The home of the Oregon Ducks is a healthy drive from Seattle and San Jose but is a central location along I-5.
The Kraken are already getting a Winter Classic game at T-Mobile Park next season, but the NHL may as well keep adding excitement for its newest expansion franchise. As has been discussed with some other neutral-site locations, playing a game in Eugene would give hockey fans in Oregon a rare opportunity to watch an NHL game live. As I said above about the game in Provo, this could be a two-game series between the Kraken and Sharks.
In addition to playing a game in a different market, these teams have two of the best names in the NHL. Sports across the board need more aquatic predators as mascots.
MetLife Stadium | East Rutherford, New Jersey
Playing a game in the Newark area isn't exactly off the beaten path, but we could make it a little more interesting by letting all three teams from the New York area play one another.
The Rangers, Islanders and Devils could hold their own little in-season series in front of 82,5000 people. The team that ends the series with the most points could get some kind of shiny Big Apple trophy or a golden Statue of Liberty or something. That's more for the NHL's marketing department to figure out.