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Cammalleri's romance with outdoor hockey continues

by Dave Lozo
They say love is a battlefield and that it knows no boundaries. Considering the deep feelings Montreal Canadiens left wing Mike Cammalleri has for playing pond hockey, it's very apropos.

Cammalleri grew up in Richmond Hill, Ontario, and fell in love playing on Mill Pond. It's where he learned to skate as a young boy. It's where he developed his emotional attachment to the type of hockey just about every Canadian with dreams of the NHL experienced as a child.

As a sophomore at the University of Michigan, Cammalleri took his love to an entirely different level.

He took part in an outdoor NCAA game on Oct. 6, 2001 against Michigan State in front of 74,544 freezing-cold fans at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing. The game was dubbed the "Cold War" and ended in a 3-3 tie, but Cammalleri earned a lifetime of memories in front of what was then the largest crowd to ever watch a hockey game.

Nearly 10 years later, Cammalleri will get a chance to rekindle his love for outdoor hockey when the Canadiens face the Calgary Flames in the 2011 Heritage Classic at McMahon Stadium on Feb. 20. It will mark the second time the NHL has played a regular-season outdoor game in Canada and the first since 2003.

Cammalleri calls his relationship with outdoor hockey nothing less than a romance.

"Yeah, that's the word. It's a romantic attachment that you have to that," Cammalleri told "I think growing up not only in Canada, but in winter climates, I think guys from Minnesota would tell you the same, or Massachusetts or New York State or things of that nature.

"But growing up in these winter climates in hockey markets, we all can identify with being dropped off at the pond or the outdoor rink and just having fun, playing the game in its purest form, and whenever you reflect back on your youth that way it brings that romantic feeling. So I think so many of us can identify with that."

McMahon Stadium holds about 30,000 less people than Spartan Stadium, but Cammalleri should find himself in familiar territory.

The Calgary Stampeders of the Canadian Football League call McMahon Stadium home. The rink will be situated in the middle of the gridiron's artificial turf, much like it was at Spartan Stadium. If fans at the Heritage Classic agreed to don the maize and blue of Michigan and the white and green of Michigan State, Cammalleri might feel like he's traveled back in time.

"The most unique feeling for me, was that because the football field is so much larger than the actual hockey rink, you're playing and the stands are set back so far," Cammalleri said. "It feels like you're playing on a pond in the middle of nowhere where you can literally hear the subtle noises you won't normally hear, like skates and voices real clearly. It feels like you're playing on this big pond in the middle of nowhere, and then you look up and you hear roars from many more people than would be in a normal NHL stadium.

"That was kind of a unique take on it that I remember."

Personally, Cammalleri will also be in a unique position in the Heritage Classic. He spent the 2008-09 season with the Flames, scoring a career-high 39 goals and 82 points before signing a free-agent contract with the Canadiens that summer.

He likely won't receive a warm reception from the fans in Calgary, yet Cammalleri is prepared to endure a rough ride from the crowd to be part of an event like this in a country that has such an attachment to outdoor hockey.

"I think it means a lot. The people of Canada have very strong emotional ties to the game of hockey, and the NHL is obviously our biggest stage," Cammalleri said. "And so I think there's probably a responsibility there for both parties to respect each other. And that's nice that the NHL has reached out to Canada and said, 'Let's play a game on a rink outside like so many of us actually grew up trying to play the game.' "

If playing on a pond as a child was puppy love and a game in college at Spartan Stadium was his first serious relationship, then an NHL regular-season game with two points on the line will be the love of a lifetime for Cammalleri.

But if the Canadiens don't come away with two points, Cammalleri might look back on the day with a bit of heartache, and he knows it.

"I feel excited about it. There's some interesting dynamics to me playing in an outdoor game again," Cammalleri said. "I'm looking forward to the whole event itself, and to soaking it all up and most importantly getting the win, because memories are a lot sweeter when you've got a victory behind them."

Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo
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