The Colorado Avalanche has played in the league's outdoor game spectacles twice before, skating in front of capacity crowds in stadiums close to home in Denver and Colorado Springs.
What it will do next will be something the Avalanche players have never experienced at the NHL level. In fact, it's something that hasn't been done in league history.
The Avs will play in their third-ever outdoor contest on Saturday when they take on the Vegas Golden Knights, but this time there will be no fans clad in burgundy and blue in attendance. Staged on the south shore of Lake Tahoe in Nevada, the Colorado players will play in as much of a natural setting as possible while still having a feel of an NHL game.
This might be the first and possibly only time the NHL will stage such an event where there will just be players, team coaches and staff, league officials, the NBC broadcast crew and a breathtaking backdrop. There will be no spectators due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
"I think it's one of the purest forms of the game that you can play," said Avs captain Gabriel Landeskog. "Obviously being outdoors, I think most of us grew up skating on lakes and outdoor rinks, and it just makes it very special to do that at the highest level possible. Normally the big crowds make it very special and this time around will be a little bit different, but nonetheless it will be a very unique experience."
The Avalanche will skate outdoors for the second consecutive season after it hosted the Los Angeles Kings at the U.S. Air Force Academy last February in the 2020 NHL Stadium Series. The club made its open-air debut in 2016 when it faced the Detroit Red Wings at Coors Field in downtown Denver.
"I don't know how many people were there, but it was a pretty amazing environment to see. Look up and we're used to 20,000 people and now this might have been [tripled] that," Landeskog recalled of his past NHL outdoor games. "So a pretty unique experience, and this will be a lot different with no fans, but you're not protected as much and who knows if the wind will play a factor. Nonetheless it will be pretty unique and a very special, special day."
When the clubs take the ice on the par-5, 18th hole of the Edgewood Tahoe Golf Course--which has annually hosted the American Century Championship since 1990--the Avalanche will be surrounded by snow-capped peaks and trees of the Sierra Nevada mountains and be mere steps away from the wintery-cold water of the largest alpine lake in North America.
"It's going to be new for everybody, a place that most people probably have never been," said defenseman Cale Makar. "I've seen a little bit on TV just through the golf stuff, but it'll be a different experience just being able to be there."
The crisp air with a picturesque background will bring many players back to their roots of how they became enamored with the sport that they now get to do for a living. Many of them began their love story with hockey on frozen-over ponds or on neighborhood rinks, playing at all hours of the day and in all kinds of weather until their hands, toes and skin couldn't take it any longer.
That kind of setting is what a young Landeskog did with his father Tony back in Sweden.
"I remember growing up in Stockholm, ice time rentals were pretty limited at times and there were some outdoor rinks that were just wide open," Landeskog recalled. "I remember my dad and I would sometimes go there late at night and the lights would be on, and it's just such a different feeling from being inside the rink. It's just very pure. You obviously hear the wind howling around you and just very unique memories and special memories, especially that time on the rink with my old man.
"That is definitely part of where I fell in love with the game, no doubt."
Makar had a similar experience on local rinks while growing up in Calgary, Alberta. It wasn't about competition and winning or losing, it was just kids being kids and having fun with friends.
"You just don't really have a care in the world. You're just out there with friends and buddies and just having a good time," Makar said. "You kind of just forget about everything around you, and I think that was just kind of where everybody falls in love with the game--right in the moment, focusing on hockey and just kind of having fun with it and nothing too serious."
Video: The Avs players reflect on their outdoor experience
For Makar, Landeskog and most of the players on the Avalanche and Golden Knights roster, this will be their first-ever trip to Lake Tahoe and its 72 miles of shoreline that make up part of the border for the states of Nevada and California. The unique venue will undoubtably conjure up memories from the players' past, and while they'll surely reflect on their youth, this is a business trip.
It will be the third of four straight games between the Avs and Knights, with each winning one of the previous two by one-goal margins. The clubs will be looking to get any edge they can as the two squads will likely be battling for positioning atop the West Division standings for the remainder of the season.
"It will be very cool, and I'm expecting to soak it in on the practice day we get on Friday and really just enjoy it," Landeskog said. "And come game time, we'll crank it up and play a hockey game."