CHICAGO -- Tim Erixon
was so close to experiencing an NHL outdoor game that he practically could feel the cold air against his face.
It was 2011-12, Erixon's first season with the New York Rangers. However, he played 18 games for New York between trips to Connecticut of the American Hockey League.
One of the demotions stung a little more than the others. It happened Dec. 28, 2011, days before the Rangers were to play the Philadelphia Flyers in the 2012 NHL Winter Classic. The Rangers won the game 3-2 at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia.
"I got sent down [a few days] before, so I never got to experience it," said Erixon, now a 24-year-old who was acquired by the Blackhawks on Dec. 14 in a trade with the Columbus Blue Jackets. "It was my first year [in the NHL]. I got sent down right before the trip, the day before we were going to leave."
Erixon was dealt to the Blue Jackets the next season. He'd stashed thoughts of playing outside in the back of his mind until his latest career transaction brought them rushing back to the forefront.
He'll have a chance to make his NHL outdoor hockey debut at the 2015 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic, on Jan. 1, 2015 at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C., against the Washington Capitals.
"It was kind of disappointing [not to play in the 2012 Winter Classic], but that first year I was kind of going up and down quite a bit," Erixon said. "That would've been fun, but I guess I'll get to experience it this time. I'm pretty pumped to get a second swing at it."
He isn't the only Chicago player looking forward to their first time going outside in the NHL. Joakim Nordstrom and David Rundblad are outdoor newbies as well.
Nordstrom, like Erixon with the Rangers, isn't assured of making the trip to Nationals Park on Jan. 1. Prior to his recent recall from the AHL he already had been recalled and sent back to the Rockford IceHogs earlier this season. His excitement for the upcoming NHL Winter Classic remains tempered.
"If I get to play that game, it would be an awesome experience playing outdoors in front of that big of a crowd," Nordstrom said. "I grew up playing outdoors [in Sweden]. Now they're mostly indoor rinks there, or have a roof over them. But when I grew up it was all basically outdoor rinks."
Nordstrom, a 22-year old forward, learned to skate on outdoor rinks in Stockholm. He was 2 when he first learned how to stand on the ice in skates. Twenty years later, he's on the verge of experiencing an outdoor NHL game in front of thousands on New Year's Day.
Nordstrom made his NHL debut with Chicago last season, but was in Rockford on March 1 when the Blackhawks hosted the Pittsburgh Penguins at Soldier Field for the Chicago leg of the 2014 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series.
"I think we [Rockford] played at the same time so I didn't get to see that game," Nordstrom said. "I saw the highlights. It looked like a lot of fun."
Rundblad also missed it. He didn't join the Blackhawks until a trade March 4, three days after Chicago beat Pittsburgh 5-1 on the frigid, snow-covered rink.
"I've been seeing the [outdoor games] on TV and it looks pretty cool," said Rundblad, 22, who's competing with Erixon, a longtime friend, for playing time on the third defense pairing. "I didn't watch last year. For sure that's a different game, with the big crowd and the weather and everything. It's going to be pretty cool to be a part of that."
None of the Blackhawks' outdoor newbies have started asking teammates for advice about playing outside. When they do, they'll have no shortage of players with experience to talk with. Chicago's veterans won't be overwhelmed by the scene at Nationals Park, and they'll impart whatever advice they can to the first-timers.
"The only advice I would give is just do your best to treat it like a normal game," forward Patrick Sharp said. "It is a great experience. It's a spectacle. It's fun to be part of. It's something that you'll look back on, win or lose. But at the end of the day it's a hockey game. Both teams are trying to win the game and that's the best way to approach it, I guess."
Sharp said one of the lessons the Blackhawks learned at their first outdoor game, the 2009 NHL Winter Classic, pertained to the temperature.
"I remember the first time at Wrigley Field all of us had the long johns, the turtlenecks and the extra equipment because we were afraid of being cold," Sharp said. "Halfway through the first period everybody's ripping everything off and we just ended up wearing what we would normally wear for a game at the United Center."
Aside from the actual games, these events are great opportunities to create lasting memories. There's an outdoor practice the day before the game, followed by a skate with family and friends. Blackhawks players who have done it before say their outdoor rookie teammates should savor it.
"Take advantage of that and get as many pictures and videos as you can," Sharp said of the family skate. "Even though we're a team and organization that's privileged to play a lot of big games like that, playing a [Stadium Series] game and a Winter Classic, it never gets old. It never gets routine. You just want to enjoy it as best you can."