Cotton Bowl Winter Classic an unforgettable experience for all

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DALLAS — Under cloudy skies and with 85,630 fans inside Cotton Bowl Stadium, the Predators and Stars played one of the more memorable outdoor games in NHL history.

The 2020 Winter Classic had it all and a lot happened as the fans were still settling into their seats. An ejection, two goals, a denied penalty shot, a comeback, horses, longhorns and pig races — yes, pig races — were all part of an afternoon of outdoor hockey in Texas.

Before and after the game, those in attendance were able to experience the fan fest at The State Fair of Texas Midway. Along with the usual carnival items like corn dogs and merchandise, there were attractions like the Texas Star Ferris Wheel, the Top o’ Texas Tower and the Texas Skyway. Former Stars players Mike Modano and Brad Lukowich signed autographs and played bubble hockey with fans.

The party outside was only the beginning. As is tradition, the NHL dressed up the Cotton Bowl to really give it a Texas feel. On one side was a country dancing floor, which featured dancers and table tops and bar stools for performers. There were also the boots of Big Tex, the 55-foot talking cowboy, on display and a mechanical bull that was put to good use. Surrounding the rink was split-rail fencing for a true ranch vibe. 

But the real highlight of the setup was next to the walkway where the players entered the field. That was the location of something that we’ve never seen before at an NHL game: pig racing.

Ro-ham Josi, Tyler Swine-in, Ryan Jo-ham-sen, Andrew Hog-liano, and Pork-a Rinne were some of the competitors vying to be the pig racing champion. Most players didn’t really notice what was going on there during the game. Then there was Stars forward Jason Dickinson.

“I saw it on the big screen at one point,” he said. “I had to look away. I knew I’d get in trouble if I kept laughing.”

The racing pigs were just another part of the in-game entertainment that didn’t take place on the ice. Juggers, a unicycle performer, and small children riding sheep were also included in the 2020 Winter Classic experience. There was something Texas-sized and Texas-related happening at all times during stoppages and intermissions.

“I understand Twitter is going nuts in a good way about the pig races,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said between periods. “We tried to blend Texas and hockey. Each year we try and learn something and do it a little bit better.”

Above and beyond expectations

When the NHL was planning the event, they thought about maxing out capacity at 65,000 believing they couldn’t fill the entire stadium. But when tickets went on sale they saw the incredible demand and decided to open more sections of the stadium. It paid off and now the sold-out Stars-Predators Winter Classic ranks only behind the 2014 Maple Leafs-Red Wings game at Michigan Stadium in terms of attendance for an NHL game.

“I think the atmosphere speaks for itself,” Bettman said. “It has been nothing short of spectacular.”

And it wasn’t a sea of green in the seats. There were plenty of Predators jerseys to be seen in and around Dallas this week and throughout the stadium.

“There were more people here in yellow from Nashville than would fit in Bridgestone Arena,”  Bettman said. “So that’s how well Predators fans travel. All in all, it has been sensational.”

The show of support will only boost Nashville’s chances of landing a future outdoor game, something the Commissioner said the League has been working on.

Stars enjoyed it all

Home teams usually have a tough time in Winter Classic. The Stars are only the fourth team out of 12 to host the New Year’s Day spectacle and come away with a victory. Being able to play in front of your own fans in such a unique setting and win will stay with the players forever.

“Having it on home soil and the fans came out in great numbers and it was a lot of fun for us,” said Stars goaltender Ben Bishop. “To get the win is just that cherry on top. We were just saying how much more fun it is to win any game, but a game like this, of this magnitude. To do it front of our home fans in Dallas, which is what this whole event is all about, just makes it that much better.”

The sound level was certainly something new for the Stars players. As loud as American Airlines Center can be, it was nothing compared to the decibel levels reached in the Cotton Bowl. Tyler Seguin said that he’d never heard anything louder than the crowd after Alexander Radulov’s tiebreaking power play goal  in the third period.

The NHL took its crown jewel event south for the first time and it worked. The atmosphere, the visuals, and the game itself — it all worked.

“Everything and more. They did everything right,” Dickinson said. “The NHL marketing department, whoever puts it all together for us, it was an unbelievable experience you’ll never forget. I certainly won’t.”

MORE WINTER CLASSIC COVERAGE:
Stars win 2020 Winter Classic
Outdoor hockey in Texas? Sure thang, and was a hoot to boot

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Ovechkin, and Ovi Jr., take the ice at All-Star skills night

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SUNRISE, Fla. — When you’ve got the second-most goals in NHL history, you’re evidently permitted to bring a guest onto the ice for the All-Star Skills competition.

That’s why there were two No. 8 Washington jerseys out there Friday night.

Capitals star Alex Ovechkin took the ice with his Metropolitan Division teammates – and his oldest child, 4-year-old Sergei.

Sergei, named for Ovechkin’s late brother, was wearing an Ovi Jr. jersey. The kid has built a bit of a following in recent weeks, after scoring a goal at a Caps practice in December and playing a role in helping the Washington crowd celebrate his dad’s 800th goal.

It was Ovi Jr.’s first chance at being part of an All-Star weekend. His father hasn’t participated at All-Star since 2018, either because of COVID-19 or injuries. The last time his dad played in an All-Star event, Sergei hadn’t been born.

Alex Ovechkin has 812 goals. He only trails Wayne Gretzky’s 894 in NHL history.

And later in the night, Ovi Jr. got to center a line alongside his dad and Pittsburgh great Sidney Crosby. They each got an assist on a goal that Sergei scored – beating Roberto Luongo, the Florida great who came out of retirement for All-Star weekend.

Said Ovechkin after his son scored: “I think he’s really enjoying it.”

WELCOME HOME, LU

Luongo got to be part of one more All-Star competition.

In a building where a banner bearing his No. 1 jersey hangs – he’s the only former Panthers player to have that distinction – Luongo was a celebrity goaltender during the Breakaway Challenge during the Skills Competition on Friday night.

He stopped his lone shot in the breakaway, off the stick of Toronto’s Mitch Marner. On one hand, Marner is the Maple Leafs’ leading scorer this season. On the other hand, he was also wearing a white suit, sunglasses and a light blue T-shirt to keep with a “Miami Vice” theme.

Luongo was up to the challenge. Marner tried to beat him to the glove side, but Luongo got enough of it to make the save – then flopped forward to cover up the rebound, the smile clearly seen through his mask.

“You got too close,” Luongo told Marner.

Later, Luongo told ESPN during the telecast of the event that “this is my house. This is my home right here. The crease is my home.”

Luongo’s pads paid tribute to his career – the design paid tribute to his time both as a member of the Panthers and the Vancouver Canucks.

He also took part, and scored a goal, in a Florida alumni game on Wednesday night.

REMEMBERING JIMMY

Sergei Ovechkin – who knocked a shot into an open net during a stoppage of the skills events – wasn’t the only child who got a great view of the night.

Philadelphia forward Kevin Hayes has his 3-year-old nephew Beau with him for All-Star weekend. Beau’s father was Jimmy Hayes, Kevin Hayes’ brother.

Jimmy Hayes was 31 when he died in 2021 with fentanyl and cocaine in his system. He played for four NHL teams, including Florida.

Kevin Hayes is part of an All-Star weekend for the first time.

ANTHEM POISE

“The Star-Spangled Banner” was performed by the South Florida Gay Men’s Chorus, and group crushed it – never minding that the crowd, representing several different fan bases, was going to shout some term specific to their team at various points in the lyrics.

Florida fans shout along with “red” and “Knight,” one a nod to one of the team’s primary colors, the other for goaltender Spencer Knight. There also were some shouts from other fan bases; some St. Louis fans, for example, could be heard singing “home of the Blues” instead of “home of the brave” to close the song.

And “O Canada” performer Hannah Walpole had some shouting as she sang as well, particularly when she reached the “true North” portion of those lyrics – something typically heard at Winnipeg games.

SLAP SHOTS

Cale Makar, the reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner from the Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche, was the first participant in the Fastest Skater event – the opening competition of the night. He fell coming around the second turn. … Tampa Bay’s Pat Maroon, one of the broadcasters on the event, reported that he was “freezing” by working at ice level. “I’m used to the gear,” said Maroon, who was in a blazer and open shirt Friday night. … A big hit for those used to the regular colors of FLA Live Arena – and basically all other hockey arenas – was the ocean-water-shade of blue used for the blue lines and the creases. The faceoff dots at the circles on either end of the ice aren’t the standard solid red this weekend, but depict an image of the sun instead.

Capitals sign Dylan Strome to five-year, $25 million extension

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FT. LAUDERDALE, Fla. – The Washington Capitals signed forward Dylan Strome to a five-year extension worth $25 million.

The team announced the contract during NHL All-Star Weekend, which is taking place in South Florida – the place Strome was drafted third in 2015.

Strome will count $5 million against the salary cap through the 2027-28 season. He was set to be a restricted free agent this summer.

“Dylan is an intelligent and skilled center and has been a great addition to our organization,” general manager Brian MacLellan said. “We are pleased to sign him to a long-term contract. We feel his skill set is a great fit for our team as he enters the prime years of his career at an important position.”

Strome is getting a raise from the $3.5 million deal he signed with the Capitals after the Chicago Blackhawks opted not to tender him a qualifying offer and made him a free agent. Strome has 11 goals and 25 assists in 36 games this season and ranks third on Washington’s roster with 14 power-play points.

The Mississauga, Ontario, native who played his junior hockey alongside Connor McDavid with the Erie Otters has 206 points in 325 regular-season NHL games with the Arizona Coyotes, Blackhawks and Capitals.

Golden Knights captain Mark Stone undergoes back surgery

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Stephen R. Sylvanie/USA TODAY Sports
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LAS VEGAS — Vegas Golden Knights captain Mark Stone is out indefinitely after undergoing back surgery in Denver, the club announced.

The Knights termed the procedure as successful and that Stone “is expected to make a full recovery.”

This is the second time in less than a year that Stone has had back surgery. He also had a procedure May 19, 2022, and Stone said in December this was the best he had felt in some time.

But he was injured Jan. 12 against the Florida Panthers, and his absence has had a noticeable effect on the Knights. They have gone 1-5-2 without Stone, dropping out of first place in the Pacific Division into third.

Stone is second on the team in goals with 17 and in points with 38.

Devils associate coach Andrew Brunette charged with DUI

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DEERFIELD BEACH, Fla. — New Jersey Devils associate coach and former Florida Panthers head coach Andrew Brunette was arrested in South Florida while driving home from a bar in his golf cart, authorities said.

Brunette, 49, was pulled over just blocks from the ocean in the Deerfield Beach area, north of Fort Lauderdale, according to a Broward Sheriff’s Office arrest report. He was charged with one count of driving under the influence and two counts of disobeying a stop or yield sign. Brunette was released on $500 bond.

The Devils said in a statement that the team was aware of Brunette’s arrest and gathering additional information.

According to the arrest report, a deputy was in the process of giving Brunette’s illegally parked golf cart a ticket around midnight when Brunette walked out of a nearby bar and told the deputy he was about to leave. The deputy said Brunette seemed unsteady on his feet and slurred his speech, and when he was joined by his wife, the deputy said he overheard the wife tell Brunette not to drive while the deputy was there.

The deputy remained in the area and reported watching the couple drive away about 17 minutes later, according to the report. The deputy said he watched the golf cart run two stop signs before pulling Brunette over on a residential street about a mile away from his home. According to the report, Brunette had difficulty following instructions during a field sobriety test before eventually quitting and asking for an attorney. He also declined to take a breathe test to measure his blood-alcohol level, officials said.

Online jail and court records didn’t list an attorney for Brunette.

Brunette is in his first season as associate coach of the Devils. He was interim coach of the Florida Panthers last season after taking over when Joel Quenneville resigned for his connection to a 2010 Chicago Blackhawks sexual abuse scandal.

The Panthers fired Brunette after they lost in the second round of the playoffs last spring despite him leading them to the Presidents’ Trophy as the league’s top team during the regular season.

The Sudbury, Ontario, native played 1,159 NHL games for Washington, Nashville, Atlanta, Minnesota, Colorado and Chicago from 1995-2012. He was a Wild assistant in 2015-16 and worked on Florida’s staff from 2019-2022.