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The Official Site of the Philadelphia Flyers

GREENBERG: For the love of the outdoors

With Stadium Series looming, players recall their early days of hockey playing outdoors

by @NHLFlyers /

Mondays were the best days.

"They would flood the outdoor rink for the week on Sunday nights," Bob Clarke remembers. "The only time it was really nice and smooth was the next morning, so I wanted to be there early, like before 6.

"When its 20 below, the ice chips, so it doesn't take much time for a bunch of kids to chew it up. By the end of the week it was pretty bad, not that it mattered because we would play anyway. If we got a heavy snow, the fathers would come down and scrape it off, the kids helping. It was just normal, what you had to do to play. 

"In Flin Flon, we were 800 miles from Winnipeg, too far for antennas to pick up a TV signal, so we didn't have it until I was about 12. Your entertainment was outdoor sports. When we finally got TV, it wasn't yet cable, something called Cam-TV. I don't know how they delivered it, but the shows were a week late, even the Hockey Night in Canada game.

"To tell you the truth, I didn't watch that many on TV. Mostly, I was out playing. I would put my skates on at home and skate down the hill to the rink about 300 yards away. Play until 8 or so, skate back up the hill, go in and have breakfast, and then go to school at nine."

This was during the sixties, but Clarke's experience hardly has proven to be a relic of another era. Across Canada, Scandinavia and Eastern Europe, not only do feet continue to lose feeling for the love of a game that on Saturday night at Heinz Field the Flyers and Penguins will get to play again in its purest, most juvenile, form, but for practically all the players, time will be frozen, too. In an age of proliferation of indoor rinks, travel teams and, arguably, too much coaching at too young of an age, the vast majority of Flyers, whether of rural or urban background, still recalls growing up playing for fun outside.

"I learned to skate on a rink that my Dad built," remembers Wayne Simmonds, who grew up in Toronto. It is because those lessons are remembered so fondly that despite binocular-required views, the cold or sometimes rain, plus chippy and slushy ice conditions, the novelty of attending an outdoor NHL game has not worn off for the fans in the 13 years since the NHL first tried it. And the millionaires on the ice will turn into 10-year olds again.

"I played in our last one (against the Rangers at Citizens Bank Park)," recalls Simmonds. "It was pretty cool. 

"You have a lot more people watching than just outside your house or on the pond. But it's definitely a feeling that brings you back."

It was five years ago when the Flyers lost to the Rangers, 3-2. It brought Clarke, who skated in a sold-out alumni game the previous day, back five decades.

"It was almost a sense of freedom being out there," he recalls. "It just felt right for anyone who grew up playing outdoors and then the crowd just adds to the excitement. 

"You are long past being a player and here you are doing it again. At sixty some years old, it's really special."

On Saturday night, the benches will be heated and a clock will keep the game to 60 or 65 minutes, unlike almost any the Flyers and Penguins ever played as children. "You used to put on a pair of socks, then a plastic bag over them, and then another pair of socks," recalls Clarke. "Your feet would get cold, but you played until it got too cold and then you would go home.  

"When your toes started getting warm they hurt like hell, but staying out too long wasn't a lesson anyone ever learned. You would go out again."

Matt Read remembers retrieving a puck at the fringes of a pond in Ilderton, Ontario, falling through the thinner ice, getting soaked to the knees and continuing to play. "Frozen, still didn't want to leave," he recalls.

The late Rick MacLeish, the quintessentially smooth and seemingly effortless so-called river skater, literally could go right from his flooded back yard to the river and skate from Cannington, Ont. to the next town. "Used to do it to go get a hamburger," he recalled.

When the Lindroses moved from London to Toronto with Eric and his brother Brett in their pre-teens, they bought a house with an in-ground pool that they took out to build a rink. 

Growing up in Hearst, Ontario, as far north as the paved road goes, Claude Giroux had a best friend with a backyard rink. Canadian Dads are universally handy with a hammer and a hose that way. 

"My Dad built one too for a couple years, but it was small, good really just for shooting practice," Clarke recalls. "On the rink, we actually used a ball most of the time. 

"The pucks hurt like hell when they hit you in the legs, so the ball was better for us. Probably without knowing any better, it helped guys learn how to handle the puck.

"Nope, we didn't use cow chips. We had no cows in Flin Flon."

There was a mine, a sense of community and one kid who was much more in love with the joy of the sport than any dream at that point of someday playing it for a living.

"As soon as you got home from school, you'd go back out," recalls. Clarke. "It would get dark by four, so the rink was lit. No matter how many kids were there, that's who played, divided up into two teams.   Age didn't matter. 

"Not everybody came every day. There were half-a-dozen who, like me, never missed."

Mark Streit, 39, has shown up with his stuff, essentially been waiting to get picked, ever since coming to the NHL at age 28. He joined the Canadiens after they had played the 2003 Heritage Classic in Edmonton that brought the NHL back outside, left the Islanders too soon to play at Yankee Stadium against the Rangers, and joined the Flyers too late to play either at Fenway Park (2010) or at Citizens Bank Park.  

Born in Switzerland, playing most of the time before age 10 out in the elements, you would think he might appreciate most a good, clean, sheet of indoor ice. Not so. 

"Outdoors there would be snow, rain, so much glare from the sun hitting the snow that you couldn't even open your eyes," he smiles. "And still I remember it was nothing but fun. Saturdays we were out there the whole day. 

"Always wanted to do this in the NHL but never got a chance yet. Really looking forward to it."

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