CHICAGO — Clayton Keller took an eight-hour bus ride from Montreal to Boston for a hockey game at Fenway Park and won't soon forget the experience of playing outdoors.
"It was pretty cool," Keller said. He'd love to take the game outside again in the NHL with the Arizona Coyotes but will probably have to wait a while.
This season, the NHL is going back to familiar favorites for the Winter Classic between the Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins at Notre Dame Stadium and the Stadium Series game between the Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins at Lincoln Financial Field.
It'll be the sixth outdoor game for the Blackhawks, fifth for the Penguins, fourth for the Flyers and third for the Bruins. While eight teams haven't gotten a chance, those days could be approaching.
"I think we're getting close to that point," deputy commissioner Bill Daly said Thursday. "Having said that, these are pretty scarce events. You want to position them in a way where they're going to achieve the most success, however that's defined. So having a game that'll generate a bigger rating or being in an iconic stadium or venue, those are things that generate excitement and may get people to tune in. It's important for these games to do well."
The Coyotes, Carolina, Columbus, Dallas, Florida Panthers, Nashville, Tampa Bay and Vegas have yet to be scheduled for one of 26 outdoor games since the debut of the Winter Classic in 2008. Players from those teams understand why big-market counterparts are chosen instead but figure there's value in spreading the wealth.
"We talk about growing the game, right?" Columbus defenseman Seth Jones said. "You have to get nontraditional markets and put outdoor games in nontraditional markets in order to grow the game. You don't need it to be grown in Toronto or Philly because those are already huge markets. But I understand why ticket sales, all that stuff plays a factor and ticket prices and that stuff. It kind of is what it is, but it would be pretty cool to be in an outdoor game."
The Blackhawks in particular are ratings darlings given their run of success that included Stanley Cup titles in 2010, 2013 and 2015. Missing the playoffs last season doesn't even hurt because Chicago and Boston are two of the league's marquee franchises and Notre Dame's home in South Bend, Indiana, is an iconic venue.
Boston's Patrice Bergeron said playing outdoors never gets old. Chicago captain Jonathan Toews always finds himself checking the crowd and the scene during warmups and is looking forward to seeing younger teammates get their first taste of playing outside.
"It's good to have the young guys, that excitement," Toews said. "It's not like you act all spoiled like you're not excited to be there. You just recapture that."
Still, there has been criticism of the NHL for not getting some smaller-market teams involved in the outdoor rotation.
"As a team and as a community, even more than just a hockey game being played, it's an event where you want to be a part of," Predators center Ryan Johansen said. "With the same teams keep playing the same games, I'm sure they look forward to it, but it doesn't have as big of an impact as it would for Nashville."
Blue Jackets-Penguins in the Horseshoe at Ohio State, Predators-Blackhawks at the University of Tennessee's Neyland Stadium in Knoxville and Lightning-Capitals at the Buccaneers' Raymond James Stadium would be attractive matchups. The Golden Knights could conceivably host a game at the Raiders' new stadium when it opens outside Las Vegas in a couple of years, and the Stars could play at the Cowboys' AT&T Stadium with the roof cracked open.
The NHL will likely stick to teams with significant national and international appeal. Daly said the goal is to make the Winter Classic annually "a great rivalry in an amazing venue."
The Heritage Classic allowed for each Canadian team to get a turn, and the Stadium Series — which could again be staged in multiple places in a season — provides the potential to stretch beyond traditional opponents.
"One of the original ideas behind adding the Stadium Series was really to be able to do that: make those more kind of local events that are big deals in those markets," Daly said.
The Predators' run to the 2017 Cup Final and the Blue Jackets' development into a playoff team help their causes, and the Lightning could make just as strong a case with their ongoing success. The challenge for teams like the Hurricanes and Coyotes is to become perennial playoff contenders to make it worth their inclusions in outdoor games.
"I think if we keep trending upward and start winning some games then we'll maybe get thrown in that conversation to do that," Keller said.