A version of the following story appeared in the 2018-19 fourth edition of AVALANCHE, the official game magazine of the Colorado Avalanche Hockey Club. For more feature stories, purchase a copy of the magazine during Avs home games at Pepsi Center. All proceeds from game-magazine sales support youth hockey associations in Colorado.
Before they were playing in arenas in front of thousands of fans, many of the players in the NHL grew up skating on homemade sheets of ice in their backyards or on local frozen over ponds during the cold winter months of their youth.
Those days spent outside with a stick and a puck and an easily accessible place to play are where both players and fans created a foundation for their love of the game.
"You just remember your toes were frozen, your fingers were frozen, your ears were frozen, your nose was frozen," Colorado Avalanche defenseman Erik Johnson says of the time he spent playing hockey outside while growing up in Minnesota. "It was free ice, and it was easy to go find a park or a lake or a pond or something. There was always opportunity to get ice time. It was always fun as a kid."
Johnson and the rest of the Avalanche will get to channel their inner child again on Feb. 15, 2020, when they host the Los Angeles Kings in the 2020 NHL Stadium Series at the United States Air Force Academy.
The event at Falcon Stadium marks the second NHL game to take place in the elements of Colorado, as the Avs hosted the Detroit Red Wings at Coors Field on Feb. 27, 2016. Although it was February in Denver, that outdoor game was the warmest in the history of the league with a temperature of 65 degrees Fahrenheit at puck drop.
"Ever since we played that last one, you want to play in one every year. Such a great event, and the last one got the whole city of Denver and state of Colorado together," says Gabriel Landeskog. "Everyone kind of rallied around the game and everything around it. I am really excited for the next one. It will be really cool to go down to the Air Force Academy and play down there, it will be awesome."
More than 50,000 fans crowded into the home of the Colorado Rockies of Major League Baseball in downtown Denver to cheer on Landeskog and the Avs as they faced the Red Wings.
The Colorado captain is one of a handful of current Avalanche players that got to feel what it was like to play in front of that many people. Looking back on everything he experienced during that weekend, it is something that Landeskog can't wait to take part in again with his teammates.
Video: Landeskog on next year's stadium series game
"I talked to all the young guys on the team, and they are real excited for it. I've told them all about the last game and how awesome it was," says Landeskog. "Denver is real special because it is such a great sports city. I mean they care about all their sports teams, and the fans are real passionate. It is going to be awesome to see people travel down [to Air Force] and support us in a big stadium like that."
Although it is still a regular-season matchup and will have two points in the standings on the line, taking the game outside of an arena and into the mountain air creates a higher level of anticipation and enthusiasm for the contest.
"The whole buzz around the city, and even the games leading up to it, it was almost hard to stay focused because you were so excited and everybody had family and friends in town," Landeskog says of his first professional outdoor experience. "I think it is such an awesome event for guys to play and such a special day and week leading up to it. That it is something that you will remember forever."
A different component to playing outdoors is that the fans will have a different vantage point to the action and are farther away from the ice surface than normal.
In all NHL arenas, fans have an opportunity to sit next to the glass and be feet from the players, but at Falcon Stadium the fans will be much more removed from the play. Due to the distance, it takes longer for crowd reaction and cheers to reach the players.
"I think the biggest difference, I thought, was the noise," Johnson recalls of the game at Coors Field. "It took a long time for the crowd noise to reach the ice surface as opposed to when we're in our arena, it's all entrapped there. So that was kind of a different aspect.
"The roar just kind of carried, which was cool. Just a totally different experience to be outside, makes you feel like a kid again."
Video: Erik Johnson discusses next season's outdoor game
The outing between Colorado and Los Angeles will be the 11th Stadium Series matchup and 30th regular-season contest to take place outdoors in league history.
Those games have drawn a total attendance of 1,459,359 fans, an average of 54,050 per game, allowing new and old fans alike the opportunity to see the sport in a different atmosphere.
"It is a great opportunity for us to grow the game both in the city of Denver and state of Colorado, but also to show the rest of the country and North America--and even when we went to Sweden last year--what we are all about," says Landeskog. "We are such an exciting team, in my opinion, with all these young guys and even with these established players like Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen.
"We love being a part of all this, and I think the league does a great job of putting on these events so we are looking forward to be a part of it."
The event at Falcon Stadium will be the second time that the NHL has brought a regular-season outdoor game to a U.S. service academy, as the Washington Capitals and Toronto Maple Leafs met in 2018 at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.
"We are grateful for the chance to honor our military and our local U.S. service academy with a special event," says Avalanche executive vice president and general manager Joe Sakic. "Having this game in Colorado Springs also highlights the growth of hockey throughout the Rocky Mountain region since the Avalanche arrived in 1995. We appreciate being selected by the NHL for this occasion and can't wait to share the experience with our fans."
Falcon Stadium is located just north of Colorado Springs and about 60 miles south of Denver. At the base of the Rocky Mountains, it opened on Sept. 22, 1962 when a crowd of 41,350 saw Air Force defeat Colorado State 24-0 in a college football game.
The stadium was built exclusively for football, but now Air Force's lacrosse teams play all of their home matches there as well. It also serves as the location for the Academy's annual graduation ceremony.
Every May, fourth-year cadets come together in front of their family and friends in the stadium to receive their diplomas and commissions as second lieutenants in the United States Air Force.
"We look up to them quite a bit and we appreciate the service and everything that they do," Landeskog says of the military members. "For us to be able to go there and take part in this event at their home base, it will be real cool.
"Hopefully we will be able to have some interactions throughout the week with them, and the spotlight will be put on them a little bit I am sure. Just to see what facilities they have and how great of an academy it is, it will be real exciting and it is going to be cool to be down there."
The Avalanche already has a history at the Air Force Academy, having played five Burgundy/White Games at the end of its training camp on the academy grounds. Cadet Ice Arena was the location of the intrasquad scrimmage from 2007-2009, 2011 and 2013.
The matchup between Colorado and Los Angeles is scheduled to be the first-ever outdoor hockey game held at Falcon Stadium.
"I think for this, it'll be a bit more extra special to spend some more time down there and get an appreciation for everything down at Air Force," says Johnson. "I think it'll be a good atmosphere down there and playing at a stadium like that will be lots of fun. Lots of people, and it'll be cool to be down at Air Force."
Although it is impossible to predict if the weather will resemble what the players were used to when they skated outdoors as kids when the Avs host the Kings, it is sure to be a memorable weekend.