James van Riemsdyk has played in six of the 30 outdoor games the NHL has staged since 2003, tied for the most with Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Jonathan Toews of the Chicago Blackhawks.
Asked for his most memorable, the Philadelphia Flyers forward pointed to the 2010 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic at Fenway Park, when he was a rookie and outdoor games were novel, and the 2014 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic at Michigan Stadium, which drew an NHL record crowd of 105,491.
But van Riemsdyk has never experienced anything like he will when the Flyers and Boston Bruins play in the Honda NHL Outdoors Sunday on Feb. 21 (3 p.m. ET; NBC, SN, SN1, TVAS), one day after the Colorado Avalanche and Vegas Golden Knights play in the Bridgestone NHL Outdoors Saturday (3 p.m. ET; NBC, SN, SN1, TVAS).
The rink won't be in a baseball or football stadium; it will be on the golf course at Edgewood Tahoe Resort in Stateline, Nevada. There won't be fans in the stands; the players will be surrounded by mountains, trees and Lake Tahoe.
"It'll be way different and a totally different vibe in that sense," van Riemsdyk said. "That'll make this one special and definitely memorable."
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Van Riemsdyk, Flyers forward Kevin Hayes, Bruins defenseman Charlie McAvoy and forward Brad Marchand spoke about the NHL Outdoors at Lake Tahoe on Tuesday, as their teams prepared to play at Wells Fargo Center on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN, TVAS) in the first of eight meetings this season.
For Marchand, who has played in one NHL outdoor game, playing at Lake Tahoe will bring back memories of his childhood. He grew up on Beaver Lake in Glen Arbour, Nova Scotia, and the scene he describes is much like what the NHL is trying to honor.
"The back half of the lake didn't have any houses on it, so there were a lot of trees," Marchand said. "It'd be pretty special when it would rain and the entire lake would be frozen but there would be no snow on it. You could skate the entire thing.
"We did have the scenery, the trees in the background. Obviously, we didn't have the mountains and that kind of view, but we had a great little spot that we could go out [on]. It got cold early on there, so we had a lot of months there to play and to enjoy, so it was a lot of fun."
McAvoy, Hayes and van Riemsdyk played outdoors as kids in less picturesque settings. McAvoy's father used to build a little backyard rink for him as soon as it would get cold enough in Long Beach, New York; he didn't play on a pond until he joined USA Hockey's National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Hayes used to skate anywhere he could find in and around Boston. Van Riemsdyk played with some buddies on a local outdoor rink in New Jersey.
For them, the mountains, trees and Lake Tahoe will be different, but the simple purity will bring them back.
"I think the scenery obviously is going to be very unique, and then I think the aspect of not having fans there kind of makes it feel even more so like it used to when you were a kid and you just go out with a couple friends and play," said McAvoy, who has yet to play in an NHL outdoor game. "I think that aspect of it is going to be really unique. It's just going to be a lot of fun to be able to experience that."
The event comes at a time when the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted lives around the world
"Obviously, with everything that's going on, everyone should try to find the best way to stay sane and do the things they love to do," Marchand said.
That could mean a physically distanced game of outdoor hockey on a pond somewhere. In the NHL's case, it means a big event but made for television in a gated area with strict COVID-19 protocols.
"I mean, I think the outdoor games are something we all look forward to every year," Marchand said. "They're a lot of fun. Guys get excited about them. They're probably one of the guys' favorite memories when they play. …
"To still be able to make it happen and to find a unique scenario where we don't have fans but it could still be special being out in Lake Tahoe and having that scenery and that view and having a place like that, it's pretty special."
It's something no one will forget.
"Yeah, it's going to be a little bit different and a little quieter, but … there probably won't ever be another time where you're playing against another team with a backdrop like that or a situation like that without fans," Marchand said. "You've got to make it what you can during these times. It's going to be special regardless of having fans or family and friends there. We're going to make the most of it."