Todd Lisenbee: From NHL's Winter Classic, to Fourth of July baseball, to Boxing Day soccer, holidays bring out the best in sports traditions.
Sports and the holidays go together like turkey and dressing, or mashed potatoes and gravy. It’s a great way to spend time with the family, or in some circumstances, get away from the family. Last week, we had a discussion at my family Thanksgiving about which holidays are connected with the best sports traditions.
I listened to their suggestions. I considered them all. I then ignored them and came up with my own list.
- NHL Winter Classic on New Year’s Day — The newest tradition on the list, the NHL’s New Year’s Day Winter Classic has become appointment viewing for many sports fans. The first regular season outdoor game was played on November 22, 2003, but the annual Winter Classic first got going in 2008. The game has been played in both cold weather and warm weather locales. This year’s game will be at T-Mobile Park in Seattle. The coldest game ever was minus-6 degrees in Minneapolis in 2022.
Best Winter Classic performance? The first one. January 1, 2008, Pittsburgh at Buffalo. It had everything. It had the cold, it had the snow, and it was one hell of a game to boot.
- Memorial Day auto racing — Dubbed “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” the Indianapolis 500 has been a Memorial Day weekend tradition since 1911. In fact, the tradition actually goes back to before we called the last Monday in May “Memorial Day.” Before 1967, it was known as Decoration Day, and that’s when the race was held. In recent years, auto racing’s popularity has risen and then dipped, and the Indy 500, while still well attended, isn’t as looked forward to as it used to be. In the 1990s, NASCAR’s version of Memorial Day racing took shape with the Coca-Cola 600 (previously the World 600), the longest race on the circuit, which is held in the heart of NASCAR country, Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Best Memorial Day performance? I’m admittedly not an expert on this subject, but the 1960 Indy 500 was a banger, according to a recent list from NBC Sports.
- New Year’s Day bowl games — A tradition that started to die with the BCS and was dealt a death blow by the College Football Playoff is just a shell of its old self. Personally, I think that’s a good thing. The mystique of a bowl game in Pasadena and a big-time broadcast on ABC doesn’t have the value it used to. Every game is on TV now, and fans don’t care as much about going to tropical locations when they have to spend loads of cash to go coast-to-coast for conference games now. For those of us that are older, we remember how much fun New Year’s Day was for college football. Nowadays, you’re just lucky if half the players don’t opt out.
Best New Year’s Day performance? Unfortunately for the Sooners, the Boise State loss was a memorable New Year’s Day memory for college football fans. The older generation will wax poetic about the Joe Montana chicken soup game in The 1979 Cotton Bowl.
- Father’s Day U.S. Open golf — The best part about the U.S. Open golf tournament always ending on Father’s Day is that it’s a subtle reminder that I need to get my dad a card, but it’s also a bonding experience for many people with their dads who taught them how to play the game of golf. Nothing beats having lunch with pops over a drink or two and watching the last round of the U.S. Open in the Barcalounger.
Best Father’s Day U.S. Open performance? Tiger Woods in 2000 at Pebble Beach. The year before, the late Payne Stewart won his first major before telling runner-up Phil Mickelson on the 18th green, “You’re going to be a father,” reminding Lefty that his first-born daughter was way more important than a golf tournament … on Father’s Day.
- Christmas Day NBA — The first Christmas Day NBA game was played in 1947, but since 1995 the previous year’s champion has been featured on Christmas Day. In recent years, it’s become a cavalcade of basketball, starting in Madison Square Garden at 11 a.m. Central Standard Time, and ending with a West Coast tip-off after 10 p.m. CST. The biggest stars always come out on Christmas, and even in an age of load management, stars like LeBron, Giannis, KD and Luka all seem to give it a go on the big Christmas Day games.
Best Christmas Day performance? Ironically, the two best happened before the aforementioned 1995 tradition of the previous year’s champs playing. Underrated Knicks legend Bernard King had 60 points on Christmas Day in 1984, but even it dwarfs in comparison to Wilt Chamberlain’s 59 point, 36 rebound effort against the Knicks in 1961.
- Fourth of July baseball — As was forever immortalized in the 1993 movie The Sandlot, the holiday that celebrates our nation’s independence has been linked with baseball for generations. It’s a perfect excuse to be outside on what usually is a good time of year to get out in the sun for a bit. It’s also a perfect lead-in to the fireworks show that follows. Did you know that the first fireworks show was at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh in 1909? Now you do.
Best Fourth of July performance? On the same day as Lou Gehrig’s famous speech, Jim Tabor (not Traber) of Boston hit two grand slams in the first game of a doubleheader and a 3-run shot in the second game to give him an 11-RBI day. The Red Sox swept the Yankees 17-7 and 18-12.
- Boxing Day soccer — Boxing Day (December 26) and soccer have a tradition in the UK that is similar to Thanksgiving football in the U.S. Its history goes back over a century, but it didn’t become a league-wide staple until after World War II. The tradition of Boxing Day goes back to servants getting the day off to spend with family and a gift in a small box on the day after Christmas, but the tradition of soccer around Christmas goes back to the Christmas truce of 1914, during which a group of German and British soldiers emerged from their World War I trenches to play some soccer during an arranged cease-fire.
Best Boxing Day performance? 1963. There were so many goals scored that day that it’s now become a joke of how often it is mentioned. Every year there are tweets to remind us of the crazy scores from that day, like this one.
- Thanksgiving NFL football — The history of Thanksgiving football in Detroit traces its roots back to 1934, but Thanksgiving really became a staple in 1966 when the Dallas Cowboys joined the Lions for what is now the traditional schedule we know on the fourth Thursday in November. Many of you spent your Thanksgivings just like me, watching Barry Sanders run for 150 yards in a loss in the afternoon and watching Troy, Emmitt and Michael lead the Cowboys to an evening win.
Best Thanksgiving Day performance? O.J. Simpson’s 273 yards in 1976 against the Lions has to be at the top of the list. Troy Aikman holds the Thanksgiving Day passing record with 455 yards against the Vikings in 1998, but it was in a 46-36 defeat.
The most memorable Thanksgiving Day football moment can’t be argued, however. Leon Lett’s Thanksgiving blunder in 1993.