In less than a week's time, California will be able to proudly boast hosting two outdoor hockey games in less than 13 months and drawing more than 100,000 fans to the spectacle known as the Stadium Series. Conversely, Minnesota, a land promoted as the State of Hockey, has yet to host one of the NHL's signature events.
Don't feel bad for people living in the land of 1,000 lakes, though. While they may not have the sun-drenched skies that often serve as the back drop for glorious views here in the Golden State, Minnesota school kids and their North Dakota neighbors do hold at least one distinction over West Coast natives, many literally grow up on the pond.
"Every day, you would bring your skates to elementary school and middle school,” recalled Kings prospect Paul LaDue, who currently plays at the University of North Dakota. “You'd throw them in your locker and when class was over you'd book it over there [to the pond] and try to be the first one on the ice. Then, you wouldn't leave until it closed around 8:30 pm. That was an everyday thing. It was easy too because all my friends did it also.”
Prior to being selected by Los Angeles at the 2012 NHL Draft, the Minnesota native was playing for the Lincoln Stars in the USHL. And although he won’t be suiting up for the Kings when they take on the Sharks at Levi’s Stadium this weekend, he is one of the team’s three prospects to play in recent outdoor games.
"I remember our coach in Lincoln came in one day after practice, about a year before, and he told us the game had been scheduled,” LaDue continued. “Even though it was a year away, I was really excited because I had watched the Winter Classic a bunch of times, but had never actually done something like that before.”
One of his biggest concerns leading up to the event was the weather. “The game was in Omaha, so I was wondering how things were going to play out,” said the 22-year-old. “It could be either 60 degrees in February, or 15 degrees. I also wondered about the atmosphere, like, would there be a sold out crowd?"
Jordan Weal, another of the Kings draft picks to have played outdoors, was likewise thinking about the weather prior to his participation in the WHL’s game between his Regina Pats and host Calgary Flames, played the day after the NHL’s 2011 Heritage Classic featuring the Canadiens and Flames.
One of the more notable aspects of the latter contest was its ability to add to the Pats’ lengthy history. Already one of the most storied franchises in all of junior hockey, the game became the latest tale in their nearly 100-year journey.
At the time, Weal said he was “hoping for minus-20 and a blizzard, so it's just a grind fest out there. That would be fun."
With snow on the ground and frigid temperatures, it likely worked out even better than he could have hoped. Not surprisingly, Weal, who averaged more than 100 points over his final three years in Regina, managed to find his way on to the scoresheet that night via an assist on the team’s second goal. They went on to win the game 3-2 in front of more than 20,000 fans at McMahon Stadium, setting a junior hockey attendance record.
“Right when you stepped out there, you could just tell it was going to be special,” said Weal. “Being outdoors with the wind and the elements, it’s something that a lot of [us] will never forget.”
As time passes, players tend to remain like wide-eyed youngsters prior to Christmas morning when discussing their outdoor experiences. Through it all, fun and excitement seem to be two of the thoughts that come up most often when they reflect on lacing up the skates for those contests.
“I was really excited because our game was going to be in my hometown of Chicago,” said former Wisconsin Badger Michael Mersch, now with the AHL’s Manchester Monarchs. “Knowing I was going to have a chance to play in front all my friends and family, and at Soldier Field where I've been watching the Bears play since I was a kid, I obviously marked that on the calendar right away. It ended up being such a great time and a cool experience, something that you know you’ll probably never get to do again.”
Just like the Kings and Sharks will take to the Northern California ice a day early for practice, this trio of NHL hopefuls also participated in an outdoor practice with their respective clubs in the days leading up to the actual games, and each say it was nearly overwhelming.
“Going out there, everybody was in awe, just seeing it in person for the first time,” LaDue described, as if it was yesterday. “We had a great time out on the ice and it was so much fun, a real blast. Everybody was skating a little harder that day in practice, for sure. We were really looking forward to putting on a great show in front of a large crowd and taking on one of our big rivals."
That rivalry element was also a key factor to Wisconsin’s game at Soldier Field.
“We knew it was going to be a big game, being against Minnesota, one of our big rivals,” said Mersch. “We knew it was going to mean something because all of those games usually do. We played Minnesota at home on Friday, before practicing at Soldier Field on Saturday. You were trying to just focus on Friday night, but some guys may have been looking ahead. I remember the two hour bus ride to Chicago on Saturday, and getting on the rink, just to get a feel for the ice and the environment around us. It was awesome!”
For the first year pro, that game will always hold a special place in his heart because of his ties to the Chicago area.
“I videotaped the entire thing,” Mersch noted. “I didn’t dream about it ahead of time, but it’s like a fairytale almost - especially since there’s no college hockey in Chicago, not everybody can watch it. All my friends and family had the chance to share in all of it with me. My family has Bears season tickets. I have watched so many Bears games there and to play there sort of connected me with a lot of memories from my childhood. I’ll never forget that feeling of first walking out of the locker rooms, there’s a lot of energy and people outside waiting in the cold. That anticipation had everyone [really pumped up]. When you first walk out of the tunnel, it’s an unreal experience. There’s a lot of buzz, it’s not like a loud buzz, but it’s there. Those stadiums are so big, it’s not like a traditional ice hockey rink where everybody is on top of you screaming, it’s a different type of buzz. But it’s pretty cool. Everybody grows up watching football, so you kind of get a feel of what those guys go through because you’re on the field, only playing hockey instead.”
To this day, hockey outdoors just feels right for Mersch.
“A lot of my close friends that I grew up with were hockey players and loved the sport,” he said. “This one kid on my block had a rink in his backyard and there were a lot of other ponds around. It’s almost a tradition; every time I go home I try to play with my buddies if it’s cold enough over Christmas. We have a lot of memories outdoors, and like a lot of people say, that’s where the game originated. Then, for me, to be able to play in a game at Soldier Field, I went back outside where it all started for me and my friends.”
Mersch’s Badgers came away winners that day – “Being able to play there in front of all my family was great. Winning in front of them was even better,” he said. It’s the one thrill LaDue didn’t get to experience when he played outdoors; his Stars fell to the Lancers 4-2. Even so, he has an ear to ear smile when retracing the steps of the entire experience.
“Things started getting pretty intense in the week leading up to it,” he said, with his voice noticeably changing, as if he was getting into game mode. “It was so different. For one, it wasn't too loud because the fans weren't right on top of you. However, it was really crazy to see all the tailgaters before and after that game because, obviously, that's not normal for a hockey game. The ice ended up being pretty choppy and it was a different style of game. The sun was out and the ice wasn't exactly the way we wanted it. Omaha scored early. After that, it was kind of hard to move the puck back and forth. We did have a few chances, though. I remember our line was in their zone for about two minutes near the end of the game, just peppering their goalie. We couldn't get one past him, but it was a lot of fun to hear the crowd cheering us on in the background. It sucked to lose, but you can't look at it that way.”
How much did the game mean to him? He bought his own jersey from the team and it proudly hangs on the wall of his dorm at North Dakota.
“We had custom jerseys made for that game. It was pretty special to play outdoors and it was a cool uniform, so I wanted mine. Playing outdoors took me back to my youth, just with pads and some hitting," he said with a little laugh.
John Hoven is the founder and editor of MayorsManor.com - previously named Best Hockey Blog by Yahoo Sports and the Best Sports Blog by LA Weekly. As a past member of the Professional Hockey Writer's Association, Hoven has voted on the top NHL Awards. He has been active over the years on the NHL Radio Network, where he co-hosts the West Coast Bias show, and on Twitter as well (@MayorNHL).