SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 21, 6:40 P.M. PT
Part of romanticizing our past is enriching the good things and forgetting the bad and when it comes to outdoor hockey we remember our friends and the fun but forget the cold.
Radio partner Dan D'Uva and I called Saturday's game from a once-in-an-NHL-career perch right along the boards just inside the blue line. While the action was up close and the vantage point unique, it was also cold. Very cold. Stomp up and down during every media timeout cold. Getting called a wimp from the team's GM for putting on extra layers cold. (Said comment came via text from said GM who was sitting comfortably in a heated chalet right behind our makeshift radio booth.)
While the Golden Knights came up short losing 3-2 to the Colorado Avalanche, the game will still be memorable for lots of reasons. The clubs started the game at noon PT before ice conditions forced them to take a several hours long break before the second period resumed at 9 p.m.
The NHL's ice crew led by Dan Craig and Derek King did a remarkable job getting the ice back into playable shape and VGK defenseman Alec Martinez told Dan and I on the radio after the second period that the ice was, "awesome."
Just prior to puck drop for the third period, Dan asked me if I'd like to do a little play-by-play as part of the outdoor experience. I'd told Dan how I had done imaginary play-by-play now and again with my friends as a kid when we skated outdoors and it was a real nice gesture by him. Now I can add, "called play-by-play in a real NHL game for two whistles," to my resume.
The next outdoor game the Golden Knights play in will hopefully be in Vegas. The organization would do an incredible job and if fans can be back in attendance the Vegas Golden Knights fanbase would make it different than any outdoor game ever played. I won't say better than any game ever played because that would do a disservice to fans everywhere who have shivered and cheered their way through outdoor games throughout hockey history at all levels of the game. But I'll say this, none will have ever done it better than the VGK legions would if given the chance.
SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 20, 9:30 A.M. PT
Saturdays were for hockey. A house league game first thing in the morning and then the entire day at the outdoor rink. Late morning, all afternoon and then a little evening shinny after dinner and leading up to Hockey Night in Canada.
Now as an adult working for the Vegas Golden Knights and being part of the broadcast team for this weekend's NHL Outdoors at Lake Tahoe event, the similar feelings of those gloriously frostbit days is uncanny.
Friday night, sleep was difficult to achieve just like it was for young boys and girls growing up all over the world knowing Saturday morning brought hockey.
Today, it's an opportunity to talk on radio and TV about this incredible game in the most unique setting. Back then it was the chance to try and score and check and win against the foes of our minor hockey teams and pals at the park.
My old man loved Red River cereal. The porridge in the red box. He'd get it simmering early Saturday morning while I'd start to pull on my equipment. We dressed at home but for our skates, helmet and gloves. A little milk and brown sugar to cool and sweeten the pasty gruel and then five fast spoonfuls. My dad drove big four doors. Plymouth Fury or Pontiac Parisienne. We had two rinks in my hometown. Northcrest was a drafty barn with some of the best ice in Canada. The Kinsmen Centre was newer and had two pads.
I was a church league defenseman who could see the play unfolding but didn't have the skating ability to make it happen. Weak shot and weak ankles do not an NHL player make. But I loved it.
My dad didn't say much while he watched and in the car ride home his only criticism was that I didn't keep two hands on my stick. "You wave it around like a wand," he'd say.
Back at home, I'd run downstairs get out of my gear and put on jeans and my team jacket and then haul stick and skates up to the outdoor rink. Game on.
Colorado Avalanche forward Gabriel Landeskog has described outdoor hockey as the purest form of hockey. Today's game between the VGK and the Avs and Sunday's between the Flyers and Bruins won't be shinny. This is regulation NHL hockey. It will be fast and violent and played with the anger of professional competition.
The setting, however, will be that of our youth. Outdoors. OK, not many of us played on the shores of Lake Tahoe with the Sierra Nevada mountains looming over the proceedings. But you get the point. Referring to pro sport as pure is a bit of a stretch. While there won't be any fans here, the game will be broadcast around the world on radio and TV. There will be referees and video review. Commissioner Gary Bettman is here and so are two Zambonis. Not exactly a bunch of kids playing for fun. But if there's such a thing as close to pure, this is it.
FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 19, 3:30 P.M. PT
The shuttle rattled its way up the winding Edgewood Resort driveway and spit us out at the steps of the hotel. A few steps down a paved trail and a remarkable and unimaginable vista opened up before us.
To the left was a rippling Lake Tahoe framed by the snow-capped Sierra Nevada mountains. To the right was perhaps the greatest Outdoor Rink (ODR as the kids say these days) ever constructed.
A regulation rink complete with boards, NHL Outdoors At Lake Tahoe logo, two Zambonis buzzing up and down and some of the greatest hockey players in the world waiting to jump on and carve up the pristine sheet.
Alex Tuch was the first member of the Golden Knights to come down from the team's dressing room and shortly after Keegan Kolesar followed. Soon all of the Knights and the coaching staff were crowded around the glass waiting for the Zambonis to finish flooding NHL ice czar Derek King's creation.
Vegas wore its retro reverse red jerseys with toques to match for a team picture at center ice and put on practice sweaters and helmets. The Colorado Avalanche, who practiced second, followed the same routine wearing their retro jerseys featuring the Quebec Nordiques logo in Avs colors.
My radio partner Dan D'Uva and I were crammed up against the boards in our makeshift booth from where we will call Saturday's game between the VGK and Avs. Golden Knights players slapped the glass with their sticks and fired pucks in our direction once they figured out we'd be there all practice and for the game.
Management marveled at the rink and the set up before putting on their game faces and watching practice with experienced eyes.
Head coach Pete DeBoer put his team through some fast drills before putting half the team on one bench and half on the other and then running a 3-on-3 scrimmage to simulate the outdoor rink action of youth.
At noon, Dan and I broadcast Knight Time at Noon from our rinkside position and were joined by Max Pacioretty and later NBC broadcaster Mike Tirico.
The wind picked up and reminded us all that despite the idyllic setting, we were indeed outdoors.
Game time is noon on Saturday. I'll try to file a post in the morning and then one more following the game. Thanks for following along.
THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 18: 8 A.M. PT
My outdoor rink was at the corner of Hawthorne Drive and Weller Street in my hometown of Peterborough, Ontario. Rumor has it the great Bob Gainey, who grew up in the east end of the city before going on to win Stanley Cups with the Montreal Canadiens, once took a twirl with his buddies on that very ice.
One of the neighborhood kids, Robby Craig, was paid eight bucks for every day the ice was skateable. He usually got the rink going in early December and it hung around until late February or early March when the spring thaw would begin in our town just an hour and a bit outside of Toronto.
My older brother Peter would hand down his skates to me and they'd be well broken in before they got to my feet. But they always seemed new to me.
My father would get our skates sharpened on Tuesdays. Our job was to pull them out of our hockey bags in the basement Monday night and leave them at the front door so he could drop them off at Coombes and Ferguson, a sporting goods store on George Street in our downtown.
The sharpener would always ask my father why there were so many nicks in my blades. Well, when the puck would end up on the road behind our outdoor rink, we would take turns going to fetch it. It wasn't the walk through the snow but the few steps on the pavement which did a number on the steel of our skates.
There was no warming hut. No hot chocolate. No food cart. This was small town Canada in the 1970s. We picked our own teams, refereed our own games, called our own play-by-play and broke up our own fights. We had one light at the north end of the surface and as darkness approached there were long shadows on the ice. Maple Leaf Gardens was 90 minutes to the West and the Montreal Forum was five hours to the East. Most of us had never been to either. But we were transported there again and again.
A friend named Mike Morrissey played net for the Minor Peterborough Petes. But when we played road hockey or shinny, he liked to play forward. "Guy Lafleur today, Guy Lafleur every day," he would announce. We all had our alter egos. Our favorite pro who we wanted to emulate in our open air marathon games. Mine was Larry Robinson.
"17-17. Next goal wins," someone would shout on Saturday evening as Hockey Night in Canada drew closer. "Gotta win by two," would come the retort.
We'd tear off our skates, slide them on to our sticks and race home to pile on to our family room couch just in time for the opening notes of Dolores Claman's immemorable theme song.
My town was split between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Canadiens. Hockey Night in Canada was shown on the CBC and the TVs in Peterborough received the network on two affiliates, Channel 5 out of Toronto and the local Channel 12. The Leafs were shown on Channel 5 and the late Danny Gallivan would bring us the Habs on Channel 12. My house watched Channel 12. I got to watch those great Canadiens teams of Lafleur and Robinson and Serge Savard and local boy Gainey lift the Stanley Cup four times in the late 70s.
Up at the rink in the park, we had Leafs and Canadiens fans, Bruins followers as well as Flyers supporters. The Blackhawks too, if memory serves.
The Vegas Golden Knights is the flag which gets flown in my house now. And on Saturday, I'll be lucky enough to be talking about an NHL game for real. If it lives up to the fantasy of my youth, it will be tremendous.