I’ve never played in an outdoor game before so it’s going to be different and exciting for sure. - Joni Ortio
When Derek Grant hit the ice at Michigan Stadium back on Dec. 11, 2010, he was greeted by thunderous cheering.
The game, dubbed The Big Chill, set an attendance record with 104,173 fans in the stands and while his Michigan State Spartans dropped a 5-0 decision to the Michigan Wolverines, the entire experience remains on of his favourite memories of his career.
"It was crazy," the Stockton Heat forward recalled. "It was Michigan and Michigan State rivalry. That in itself is pretty big. I think there was 100-something thousand people there. It was probably little colder than it’s going to be in this one. It was just a fun experience."
Grant and his new Stockton teammates will get his second opportunity to play an outdoor game on Friday when they face off against their divisional rivals, Bakersfield Condors, in Sacramento. The Golden State Hockey Rush is the inaugural West Coast AHL outdoor game and will be played in front of 15,000 fans at Raley Field.
"I’m looking forward to it," said Hunter Smith, selected by Calgary in the second round of the 2014 NHL Draft. "Obviously the competition is a lot higher and it’s a lot more serious. It’s a regular season game. It’s two points we need. You have fun with it but you’re still there for business. It’s going to be a good experience for everyone. Outdoor games, the way they’re moving … I’ve never been in one in California so that’s going to be interesting for sure."
Like Grant, Smith has had the opportunity to play an outdoor game and understands how unique of a situation it is for players. While he was a member of the Oshawa Generals, he played in an exhibition game against Victory Honda at Comerica Park.
"Us being right across the border from Detroit, we played Victory Honda. Getting to play in 110,000 seat stadium, it was pretty cool whether there were fans or not. The atmosphere and getting to play on the field was pretty surreal."
Given the variables of an outdoor game, Heat players have to prepared to make adjustments on the fly as they clash with the Condors. As of Thursday afternoon, the forecast for Sacramento is expected to be around 15 degrees Celsius and there is a chance for rain, which will have an impact on the game.
No matter what the conditions are like, Smith is hoping his teammates can soak in the experience and revel in the chance to play in an outdoor game in Northern California in December.
"I’m not sure how the ice is going to be," Smith said. "I hear it’s going to be pretty good but we’ll have to wait and see. Obviously if it rains or anything, that’s not going to help, or if there’s sun glare. It’s not going to be too cold so you’re not going to have to wear a toque or anything out there. Just kind of play like you’re on the outdoor rink and have some fun with it.
"It’s cool. I don’t think a lot of teams get the opportunity … especially in the American League, I don’t know how many teams are doing outdoor games this year. Just go out there and it would be nice to score a big goal or throw a big hit in that game."
Kennebunkport, ME native and Brown University alumnus Garnet Hathaway has watched his fair share of outdoor games over the years. In addition to watching the NHL's Outdoor Classic games, he kept a close eye on the NCAA's outdoor tilts. The
Last year alone, the NCAA held 11 outdoor games: five at Fenway Park, four at Comerica Park, one at Frontier Field, and one at TCF Bank Stadium.
"Being from the North East and going to school around Boston, a bunch of teams got to play at Fenway the past few years -- a lot of the years I was there. And I never got to play in it so I was pretty jealous," he said.
"I'm looking forward to [Friday's] game."
Joni Ortio is expected to get the start in net for the Heat on Friday. While he has never played in an official outdoor game, he has some experience with outdoor hockey thanks to his childhood in Finland.
"Back home, pretty much everything is frozen so if there was a surface to skate on, we’d do it," he grinned.
"It’s fun. I’ve never played in an outdoor game before so it’s going to be different and exciting for sure."