VANCOUVER -- Chris Higgins didn't just grow up skating on frozen ponds along the north shore of Long Island, N.Y.
He survived it.
As Higgins joined his Vancouver Canucks teammates in reminiscing about their childhood memories of outdoor hockey in anticipation of the 2014 Tim Hortons NHL Heritage Classic against the Ottawa Senators on Sunday (4 p.m. ET, NBCSN, CBC, RDS), there was one that jumped out for him. And although Higgins was laughing as he shared the story, his fall through thin ice when he was 8 years old was a little more serious at the time.
Higgins said he could see it in his father's eyes, and Robert Higgins, a New York City firefighter, doesn't scare easy.
"He was yelling, 'I can't come get you, you gotta get yourself out,' and as an 8-year-old kid, that's tough to hear," Higgins said. "I went down and hit a bad patch of ice and started sliding towards the open end of the pond, and before I got there I went crashing through and in over my head.
"Once you get up and try to pull up, the ice just keeps breaking, and I was getting more scared every time it broke, and my dad couldn't come over because it would break with him for sure, and then finally I was able to get up on the ice and grab his stick and he dragged me out. Mom comes racing from home, heat blaring …"
Higgins began chuckling again, saying at one point he wasn't in "real danger" because he was "a real good swimmer," but later adding the experience "was one of the first times I didn't know if I was going to make it."
For Higgins, it was all part of growing up in Smithtown, a New York City suburb on Long Island, constantly in search of ice to skate on.
"Growing up, my dad was always on the hunt for little ponds around our house, and he kind of had five or six tucked away in his memory and knew which ones froze over first," he said. "The smaller ones would freeze first and then the bigger ones where you could play with other kids from the neighborhood, but this was one of the smaller ones. It was probably a little warmer than it should have been, but if it was ice, then we were skating on it, so we went down."
Down went Higgins too, but it didn't chill his love for outdoor hockey.
He remembers playing prep school games in Connecticut against two teams with partially exposed rinks, and while the family did venture to Central Park and Rockefeller Center to skate on outdoor rinks a couple times, that was never the preferred venue for Higgins.
"More of a last resort," he said. "We always wanted a stick and a puck, my dad and my brother, so we didn't do that too often."
No wonder Higgins is so excited to finally get a chance to take part in an outdoor game in the NHL. He has closely followed the 2014 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series, especially when his former team, the New York Rangers, got to play two games at Yankee Stadium in January. As a Yankees fan, Higgins had friends send photos from both games.
"They were cold, but they had fun," he said. "It looked pretty cool."
It may not be Yankee Stadium, but Higgins is just as excited to cross the street from Rogers Arena to BC Place this weekend. He hopes the roof stays open against the Ottawa Senators on Sunday.
Fresh off a Caribbean vacation and looking rested and tanned from his time away during the 2014 Sochi Olympics, the New York native wasn't bothered by the snowfall that blanketed Vancouver this week. He was just looking forward to skating in the cool winter air.
"I have never played an outdoor game in the NHL before, so I'm really excited," he said. "Every Canadian team deserves a shot at one of these, and I am glad I am here when Vancouver gets its turn. And I've never played a game where there's more than 21,000 fans, so playing in front of 55,000 people, everyone is excited for that."
Higgins' parents are even flying in from New York to see the game, but this time his dad doesn't have to worry about any thin ice.
"I can't fall through this ice, right?" Higgins said.
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