VANCOUVER -- Ask Dan Hamhuis about skating outdoors and he doesn't have to think all the way back to his childhood.
The Vancouver Canucks defenseman took his family to his hometown of Smithers in northern British Columbia during the past two Christmas holidays, and skating on the lake behind his house was a big part of the trip.
"I spent a lot of hours out there by myself," said Hamhuis, who began skating there at age 4. "It's a great place just to tinker around with different skating moves or different stickhandling moves and spend a few hours on your own, in your own little world, and just skate."
Hamhuis' recollections came flooding back as he prepared to play in the 2014 Tim Hortons NHL Heritage Classic on Sunday. But not all of the Canucks' homegrown players have similar memories.
For defenseman Jason Garrison and injured forward Mike Santorelli, each from the Vancouver area, hockey was a sport played indoors or on the road without skates. For them, the third outdoor NHL game in Canada will be a celebration of the sports and its roots in British Columbia. With almost 7,000 tickets set aside for minor hockey players around the province, the Heritage Classic will be a boost for the game here.
"It's such a big event, just playing hockey in a football stadium in front of a lot more people, and they make it a big event for all the right reasons," Garrison said. "There's a lot of hype around it, and those are the key things that make it such a cool event to play in."
Santorelli won't play after having shoulder surgery Jan. 30, but he joined members of the 1994 Canucks team that made it to Game 7 of Stanley Cup Final to surprise an elementary school class skating outside at Robson Square in downtown Vancouver this week.
Santorelli remembers cheering that 1994 team, which will celebrate the 20th anniversary of that run to the Cup Final against the New York Rangers during the Heritage Classic. He said he thinks another generation of fans will be inspired seeing this year's Canucks play the Ottawa Senators at BC Place (4 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, RDS).
"It's such a great event," Santorelli said. "Not very many people get a chance to play in or watch an outdoor game, so everyone I know is excited, and I think it will be a great atmosphere for sure."
For Hamhuis, who won a gold medal with Canada at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, the chance to play outside was a big part of developing as a player beyond the more structured setup of minor hockey.
"We had a regular backyard rink for a lot of years, and I spent hours and hours out there. When I outgrew that, I started playing on the community rinks we had in Smithers, just fun, pick-up hockey," he said. "It's a great place to develop skills when you are not on a schedule or have to get off the ice at a certain time. You can stay out there, just play around and dream about different plays."
There could be plenty of dreams inspired by the Heritage Classic.
"I never got to see an NHL game until I was in my late teens," Hamhuis said, "but to see NHL players in a venue like this, where it is a big deal across North America, would be really amazing."
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