Blue Jackets, fans soak in scene at outdoor practice

Friday, 01.22.2016 / 4:20 PM
Craig Merz  - Correspondent

COLUMBUS -- The Columbus Blue Jackets players, despite an injury to coach John Tortorella, were having such a good time skating outside it was hard for many to leave.

Tortorella sustained two broken ribs after a collision with forward Rene Bourque about 20 minutes into the Blue Jackets' first outdoor skate, held Friday morning at Winter Park in McFerson Commons, across from Nationwide Arena. Tortorella left the ice and was taken to a hospital for evaluation. He did not travel with the Blue Jackets to Boston on Friday afternoon and it's unlikely he will coach the Blue Jackets on Saturday against the Boston Bruins.

The practice essentially ended after that, so the players did shootout drills for a while before leaving the ice a few at a time. Some stayed more than 45 minutes after the accident to soak up the atmosphere.

"It brings you back to the days of your childhood, lacing them up in the snow bank and going out there and whacking the puck around," said forward Scott Hartnell, who played in the NHL Winter Classic twice with the Philadelphia Flyers. "You know how cold it is and you want to stay out there at all hours of the night finishing your best-of-7 series for the Stanley Cup when you're 9 years old, 8 years old."

The Blue Jackets' Winter Park is the offshoot of the temporary outdoor rink built at the same location last year in conjunction with the 2015 NHL All-Star Game in Columbus.

Friday marked the opening of public skating that will run through Feb. 21.

The players were greeted with a temperature of 25 degrees Fahrenheit, with a wind chill of 13. Fire pits helped keep several hundred fans warm.

"It was awesome," Blue Jackets captain Nick Foligno said. "Even the fire in the background, you could smell it. It reminded you of being a kid. A lot of parents would stand around it while we were on the ice.

"I think it's a great idea from the city's perspective to have this for people to enjoy. We definitely had a blast out there. To see so many show up, on a work day too, was nice. One kid had a sign, 'School, no. CBJ, yes,' or something like that. It was pretty cute."

The players, in gear, walked about a half a block to and from Nationwide Arena and stopped to sign autographs along the way.

Defenseman Seth Jones, who joined the Blue Jackets on Jan. 6 in a trade with the Nashville Predators for Ryan Johansen, said he was impressed by the turnout.

"It was awesome. It was great support," Jones said. "To sit out here and sacrifice and be out in the cold for half-an-hour, hour, tells me a lot about the fans. Obviously they're here to support us."

For Brandon Saad, who played in the 2015 Winter Classic for the Chicago Blackhawks, the day was chance to reminisce.

"It reminds you of playing when you're younger, being a kid again, feeling the air in your face," he said. "You have fun with it. You don't get many days like this so you enjoy them when you get them."

The day was even made more special because the fathers of the players are in Columbus for their annual Dad's trip that includes traveling to the Blue Jackets' game at the Boston Bruins on Saturday.

Dads and players gathered after practice at center ice for a photo amidst a winter setting devoid only of snow.

"It's a pretty scene out here," Hartnell said. "It's nice to kick it off with a practice. A lot of kids and families will have a lot of great quality time out here."

Several players hope the Blue Jackets will continue having outdoor practices in the future.

Foligno said he hopes it leads to bigger things for the franchise, which never has played an outdoor regular-season game. The 2016 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series games will feature the Chicago Blackhawks against the Minnesota Wild at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis on Feb. 21 and the Detroit Red Wings against the Colorado Avalanche at Coors Field in Denver on Feb. 27.

He said he would like to see a Winter Classic at Ohio Stadium, which holds more than 108,000 fans for Ohio State football.

"It would be unbelievable," he said. "The whole city would rally around it. We have an unbelievable facility at Ohio State."

Foligno's only complaint about the practice was that it was too short.

"It was really cold at the start," Foligno said. "You get moving as fast as you can so you can warm up and stay out here for hours. That's why I couldn't get off the ice; I was having so much fun."

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