Should the NHL Bring Back Christmas Games?

The Pittsburgh Penguins franchise can always find a reason to celebrate. From Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve games to theme nights and victory parades, the organizationfrom the front office right down to the players loves to find a way to make games fun and memorable for fans. There is one holiday that would make for an obvious party of Penguins proportions: Christmas. However, because of league rules, the idea of a Christmas game in Pittsburgh has never even been under consideration. Maybe it’s time for that to change.

NHL Christmas History

From the early 1920s through 1971, Christmas was just another day at the office for NHL players. The Penguins suited up for four Christmas Day games between 1967 and 1971, posting a 3-1-0 record over that period. This is an impressive stat for the early Penguins teams, as they struggled to gain momentum as a franchise through the 70s and early 80s. Their Christmas Day win over the Detroit Red Wings in 1968 was just one of two wins in 14 games that December.

The last NHL Christmas games were played on Dec. 25, 1971, with the Los Angeles Kings and California Golden Seals facing off in the final matchup of the day. The Golden Seals won 3-1, and the final Christmas goal in league history was an empty-netter from the Golden Seals’ Stan Gilbertson.

Reggie Leach of the California Seals
Reggie Leach of the California Seals, formerly The Golden Seals (Photo by Melchior DiGiacomo/Getty Images)

Related: California Seals Documentary Labour of Love

How the NHL Stole Christmas

In 1972, the league did not schedule any games for Christmas Eve or Day, and in 1973, an official rule was added to prevent the scheduling of games on Dec. 24 and 25 in the future. In 2013, an extra day was added to the Christmas break, banning the scheduling of games on Dec. 26, Boxing Day in Canada.

After some too-close-to-Christmas trades made in the late ’80s and early ’90s, the NHL added a rule called the Roster Freeze to prevent teams from moving players over the holiday season. The Roster Freeze was added to the Collective Bargaining Agreement in 1995 and stated that teams could not make transactions from Dec. 19-27. During the 2004-05 lockout, the rule was amended to include minor-league loans and call-ups under the category of transactions.

Former Penguins players Rob Brown and Scott Young were dealt between Pittsburgh and the Hartford Whalers on Dec. 21, 1990, which resulted in looking for a place to live over the Christmas season rather than spending time with family and friends.

Young told Stephen Whyno of the Toronto Star:

“What does it turn into if there’s no trade freeze at all? It turns into who’s going to outwork the other guy and make a deal on Christmas morning when his kids are opening up presents? You don’t want it to be like that,” (from ‘NHL’s holiday roster freeze tradition lets players breathe easy,’ Toronto Star – 12/22/17).

For the reasons Young mentioned, among others, the Roster Freeze is a necessary insurance policy for players that they will not have to incur added stress or move away from their families over the holidays, but stopping player transactions does not mean the NHL has to stop Christmas games altogether.

Related – There Will be Blood: 1991 Bruins Penguins Series

An NHL Christmas Game Proposal

The NHL is the only one of the Big Four sports leagues that has the potential to play either Christmas Eve or Day games but chooses not to do so. MLB, of course, does not play games in December, and both the NFL and NBA hold games on Dec. 24 and 25.

In the vein of the Winter Classic and the Thanksgiving Showdown, the NHL could bring back Christmas games with one special event: The Christmas Clash. Two teams, one game in the afternoon, and a special treat for hockey fans on the ‘nice’ list. The two teams that play on Christmas could be given special considerations in scheduling, perhaps adding an additional day or two off on Dec. 27 and 28 to allow players to travel home for the holidays.

Pittsburgh Penguins, Stadium Series, Matt Cullen, Brian Dumoulin, Eric Fehr
The Christmas Clash could be as big of an event as the Stadium Series. Pictured, the Pittsburgh Penguins at the 2017 Stadium Series at Heinz Field (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports).

Related: Penguins and Thanksgiving Eve: A Holiday Tradition

Pros and Cons of Hockey on Christmas

The pros and cons of playing hockey on Christmas vary depending on which side you’re on. For fans, the entertainment value and anticipation of another specialty game could be high. People tend to take time off around the holidays and might be more willing to spend their free time at a game when they have more of it to enjoy. However, with so many big event games, like the Heritage Classic, Winter Classic, Stadium Series, and Thanksgiving Showdown, fans could see a Christmas Clash as just another marketing gimmick. The interest would be inconclusive until a real, solid proposal was floated, and the keyboard warriors weighed in on social media.

For franchise owners and executives, Christmas hockey could have them seeing dollar signs. Like with the Winter Classic and Stadium Series games, a Christmas Clash could be a marketing field day. Special logos, new jerseys, exclusive merchandise, and pregame activities added to regular concession sales and ticket prices could potentially bring in extra cash for the participating teams.

Clark Griswold, Christmas Vacation, Chicago Blackhawks
Even Clark Griswold from Christmas Vacation approves of hockey on Christmas (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures).

The cons, however, rest with the players and coaches. Even with extra days off, adding a game on Christmas would put more stress on the team, with additional practices and conditioning sessions. Even if the Christmas Clash game was played on the afternoon of Christmas Eve, the away team would still have to travel the night before and travel home on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day to get back to their families, cutting down the time they have to spend together on the holiday itself.

It’s not likely that a 40-plus year tradition of Christmas without hockey will change overnight, but in the new age of marketing, social media, and online petitions, anything is possible. The Penguins are an obvious choice to play in the first Christmas Clash if it would materialize. With stars like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, young guns like Jake Guentzel, and a history of playing some of the more iconic games in NHL history, like the first Winter Classic, who else would be a more logical fit to bring back Christmas hockey?