Before center John Mitchell was signed as a free agent by the Colorado Avalanche in 2012, he spent the 2011-12 season with the New York Rangers. While in New York, Mitchell had the opportunity to play outside in the 2012 Winter Classic, an unforgettable experience in which he tallied two helpers.
“I remember it being a fairly brisk day,” the 30-year-old forward recalled. “You kind of feel like you are playing in a minor hockey rink because there are really no stands right there, right beside you. But then when you look up and take a look around, you see that there is close to 50,000 people in the stands.”
The contest started two hours later than expected, due to warm temperatures and sun glare, but conditions were ideal when the puck finally dropped. The game-time temperature was 41 degrees Fahrenheit and snow began to flurry in the second period, making for a classic pond-hockey feel.
“You had to be prepared for anything—snow, rain, whatever it could have been,” Mitchell said about the lead up to the game. “It was cool, but it definitely snowed a little bit. It didn’t pour down or anything, so it didn’t make it too snowy out on the ice. You still want to have a good hockey game where the puck isn’t bouncing and hitting piles of snow all over the place.”
This February, Mitchell will play in the second outdoor game of his career when the Avalanche take on the Detroit Red Wings in the 2016 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series at Coors Field in Denver. Still two months out, it is impossible to predict what the weather will be like for the contest.
“I mean obviously you don’t want it to be too warm, and you certainly don’t want it to be frigidly cold,” the forward said. “Ideal conditions would be a few degrees or so above freezing, and sunny, clear and calm. I think that’s the most ideal.”
Playing in an unpredictable environment, players typically have to make adjustments to their gear in order to stay warm, but they don’t want the extra equipment to disrupt how they move.
“No matter what you do, no matter how much you are sweating, you don’t wear extra gloves under or put extra socks on. You might wear a thicker shirt on under your gear, but that’s about it.”
Although he has participated in the unique experience of playing hockey at a baseball stadium before, Mitchell said he does not believe he has an advantage going into the game against Detroit.
“At the end of the day you are still playing on an NHL regulation-size rink,” the Oakville, Ontario, native said. “It has red lines, blue lines, a crease and all the normal things. So there is really no advantage having played in an outdoor game or having never played one, I don’t think.”
However, the concept of playing outside always brings Mitchell back to his childhood, when he skated on frozen ponds off of Lake Ontario.
“I lived in Hamilton and Waterloo. Hamilton is basically right on Lake Ontario, and there are little ponds that are just off of the water,” Mitchell said. “I used to play on those all the time when I was a kid. It was just so much fun to be outside and just have your stick, your gloves, and your skates on and be bundled up with your winter clothes.
“I have a lot of fond memories of playing outdoors when I was a kid.”
Looking ahead to February, it’s safe to say that Mitchell will truly cherish the experience of playing professional hockey outdoors.