While gearing up to play in the 2020 NHL Stadium Series at the U.S. Air Force Academy, Colorado Avalanche veterans Erik Johnson, Gabriel Landeskog and Nathan MacKinnon reflected on their first professional experience playing outdoors.
All three participated in the 2016 NHL Stadium Series between the Avs and Detroit Red Wings at a sold-out Coors Field in downtown Denver on Feb. 27, 2016. It was the first-ever NHL outdoor game to be played in Colorado.
While Detroit came out on top in the end, winning 5-3, it was still a memorable experience for all three Avs players.
"It was awesome, so much fun," said Landeskog. "The whole city and the whole state of Colorado really rallied around it, so the support was amazing. To play outdoors was so much fun."
That contest remains the warmest regular-season NHL outdoor game on record at 65 degrees Fahrenheit at puck drop. The previous mark was set on Jan. 25, 2014, when the Los Angeles Kings faced the Anaheim Ducks in a 62-degree contest at Dodger Stadium in Southern California.
"It was cool," Johnson agreed of the experience. "It was fun to play outside in downtown Denver, good atmosphere. We had a lot of fun."
MacKinnon scored the Avs' first goal of the game after taking a pass from Landeskog--marking the first Avalanche goal ever in an outdoor contest--to tie the contest at 1-1 in the first period. Both players assisted on the third and final Colorado tally as well and became the only two Avalanche players to record multiple points in the game.
"It was weird being that far from the crowd," MacKinnon recalled. "I remember when we scored it was pretty quiet at first. Usually in Pepsi Center it gets really loud and there's a horn, things like that. It was pretty quiet in the outdoor game, but it was a fun experience."
Johnson noticed the noise as well, naming it as one of the things he remembered the most about the outdoor experience.
"Probably the noise and how it took kind of a long time to travel to the ice from the stands," the defenseman said.
The matchup against Detroit wasn't the only event of the weekend, either. The night prior, Avalanche players attended the Alumni Game between the Avs and Red Wings as spectators. Colorado alums such as Joe Sakic, Patrick Roy, Peter Forsberg and Adam Foote took the ice to defeat Detroit's former players 5-2 and reignite a rivalry between the two teams that was at its height in the late-1990s and early 2000s.
"I think it was a little bit different for us," Landeskog said of being a spectator for the alumni matchup. "Obviously, that was a different time, different era; it's hard to keep a rivalry going when they're in the east and we're in the west, and there wasn't really a single player that was still playing other than the alumni teams. Obviously, that was a lot of fun. They're such historic franchises that played against each other, a lot of Hall of Famers on the ice together, it was pretty special."
Skaters on the Avs' roster in 2016 got to watch the old rivalry play out in the official game in front a standing-room-only crowd at the Colorado Rockies' ballpark. In fact, the players even helped prepare the starting goalie for the matchup as they often took shots during practices at former Avalanche netminder Patrick Roy, who was the Avs' head coach at the time and was doing some training for the alumni event.
"It was fun," MacKinnon said. "I mean, Patty practiced with us for a while as a goalie, and it was cool seeing all of those legends in one game. We all saw growing up how great that rivalry was, so it was fun to be a part of it."
Along with the Alumni Game the night before, many players had the opportunity to spend time with friends, family and teammates in a relaxed atmosphere during the weekend. For Landeskog, this was the highlight.
"I mean just the whole weekend in general," Landeskog said of his favorite part. "I had a lot of friends and family come in and get together after the game. I remember the game wasn't exactly the outcome that we wanted but as a whole, as an experience, it was a lot of fun."
Despite the loss in the Stadium Series game, the overall experience was one to remember. For Johnson, it was hard to pick one favorite part of the weekend, but he loved being able to take the game outdoors.
"Just playing outside in downtown Denver was pretty fun," he said.
While this was the first professional outdoor experience for all three, Landeskog has many fond memories of playing hockey outside as a kid.
"I skated a lot outdoors when I was growing up, there were some outdoor rinks that we would run organized practices on, and then there were some skates obviously where you'd just go and mess around outdoors," the Avalanche captain recalled of his days as a youngster in Sweden. "There was a lake not too far from where I grew up, and it was very special that that lake froze over every winter. We'd go there and skate after school and with my friends and things like that. So, any chance you get to play outdoors again is very special."
Landeskog and company will get the chance to do that again when they take on the Los Angeles Kings outdoors at the Air Force Academy. While it's not quite a frozen lake, the outdoor rink in Colorado Springs will certainly be just as special.
Video: Go inside the 2016 NHL Stadium Series