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Devils players recall the great outdoors

by Eric Marin / New Jersey Devils
When temperatures dropped, Brodeur spent little time protecting the crease in local pick-up games.

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email – Long before they reach hockey’s biggest stage, many NHL players get their start on outdoor rinks no more than a short walk from home.

From the suburbs of major Canadian cities like Montreal to small towns in the Czech Republic, the outdoor game offers recreational ice hockey mostly free of strategy or structure. Skaters grab gloves and a stick, and spend an afternoon smacking the puck around the local outdoor rink or pond.

The NHL’s annual Winter Classic pays tribute to the affection that so many have for outdoor hockey. This season’s New Year’s Day showdown featured the Detroit Red Wings earning a 6-4 win over the Chicago Blackhawks at chilly Wrigley Field.

The league laid the groundwork for future outdoor competitions with the Heritage Classic in 2003, when the Montreal Canadiens and Edmonton Oilers played the first-ever outdoor NHL regular-season game at Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium.

A new tradition with roots in hockey’s early days, the Winter Classic has taken off since the inaugural event in 2008, when the Pittsburgh Penguins topped the Buffalo Sabres in a shootout at snowy Ralph Wilson Stadium.

Though none of the current Devils have experienced an NHL regular-season game outdoors, several of them have fond recollections of going a few hundred feet from their doorstep to the parks and ponds where they nurtured their love of the game.

“For me, the weekend meant playing hockey outside all day and shoveling snow to make sure the ice was right,” said goaltender Martin Brodeur. “Then after school, we played until it got dark or it was time for dinner. Early on, I learned more about hockey playing on the ponds than I did playing organized hockey.”

With an outdoor rink nearby, Brodeur spent countless hours with a hockey stick in hand.

“You carried your skates on your stick and just walked to the park,” he said. “There was a warming house to put your skates on and that was it. On weekends we could spend six hours on the ice, taking little breaks here and there.

“I think it lets you be yourself, and you learn about the game. It’s different than organized hockey. When you’re playing 12 against 12 or 15 against 15, you really have to work on your game a lot.”

When the mercury dropped in his native Minnesota, Devils’ team captain Jamie Langenbrunner headed outside.

“Where I grew up,at least for the first few years of playing,that’s what we did,” Langenbrunner said. “We skated inside very little. There was a rink outside, next to the elementary school, and we’d skate for hours.”

Fellow Minnesotan Zach Parise shared a similar experience.

Parise honed his playmaking skills in outdoor games.
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“We always played outside,” Parise said. “We had an outdoor rink and a pond right next to our house, so we were always skating outside. We were out there more often than we were at an indoor rink. That’s what you did in Minnesota in the winter.”

Parise, who is the Devils' leading scorer with 22 goals and 46 points, is no stranger to responsible hockey in his own zone. His pond game, however, was all about making plays.

“I don’t think it did much for my defensive skills,” he said. “It’s just pond hockey, so you’re not thinking defense out there. It’s good for developing creativity and learning to handle the puck. I think you just get more time to work on your own skill development as opposed to going to a structured practice every day.”

The thrill of the outdoor game extends to Europe, where skaters are just as passionate about hitting the ice for pick-up hockey. Both Patrik Elias and Bobby Holik fondly remember their early days on outdoor rinks, even when it meant picking up a shovel first.

“It was a lot of fun because you’re playing hockey with kids from your neighborhood, so you make new friendships,” said Elias, a native of the Czech Republic. “Cleaning off the pond with your buddies after it snowed, and using your shoes to make the goals. You didn’t think much about the strategies of hockey.”

Holik, also from the Czech Republic, didn’t play on outdoor ice as often as some of his teammates, but used it as an outlet for some recreation when he got the chance.

“We played outdoors, but only for fun,” said Holik, who added that his commitments to competitive teams left little time for pick-up. “You develop different skills and try different things. It’s part of growing up, like baseball players who used to play stickball in the street. It benefits you to play. It doesn’t matter if it’s on a pond, in a rink, or a stadium. The more you play, the better it is.”

Unlike baseball or football, which can be adapted to grass, concrete or turf, outdoor ice hockey requires conditions that occur only within a three- or four-month window. Defenseman Sheldon Brookbank was able to skate on outdoor rinks in his native Saskatchewan from November to March, while Brodeur said rinks were open by December in his St. Laurent suburb of Montreal.

“When the roads froze over, I used to skate to the outdoor rink from our house,” Brookbank said. “If anyone wanted to play hockey there, they could play, even if they weren’t on one of the minor teams in the area.”

Temperatures in New Jersey don’t always drop low enough to freeze the lakes and ponds, but Brodeur said no one should pass up the experience of playing hockey outdoors. What position you choose, however, may depend on the day’s conditions.

As it turns out, the three-time Stanley Cup Champion and four-time winner of the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top netminder, wanted no part of tending goal when it came to outdoor action.

“I played forward,” Brodeur said with a laugh. “Are you kidding me?  The puck was way too hard when it was minus-20 outside. But I didn’t worry about stopping passes with my foot because I had goalie skates on.”

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