VANCOUVER -- For Vancouver Canucks center Jordan Schroeder, playing in the 2014 Tim Hortons NHL Heritage Classic will bring his young career full circle. The Minnesota native credits pond hockey for sparking his passion for the game and helping him get to the NHL.
Schroeder said he was "4 or 5" years old when he began playing on a pond in his neighbor's backyard in Lakeville, a suburb south of Minneapolis. Eighteen years later Schroeder is looking forward to playing outside again, but Sunday (4 p.m. ET, NBCSN, CBC, RDS) it will be in front of 55,000 fans against the Ottawa Senators at BC Place.
The stage may be a lot bigger now, but Schroder doesn't think he would have reached it if not for that small pond that ignited his passion for the sport, and the countless hours spent refining his skating and skills on it and other outdoor rinks around Minnesota.
"That's how I got into hockey," Schroeder, 23, told NHL.com. "That's what we did growing up. Everyone in the neighborhood played."
It all started on that backyard pond, which local kids and parents kept smooth with a garden hose and their own makeshift Zamboni.
"We built a device where the water would drain onto a towel and then you would drag it across the ice," he said. "That worked really well."
Things will be a lot more modern when Schroeder and the rest of the Canucks cross the street from their usual home at Rogers Arena later this week and move into BC Place, a once-domed stadium that now is equipped with a retractable roof. With the roof open to the cool temperatures that produced heavy snowfall to start the week in Vancouver, and wind swirling down onto the ice, the game will evoke memories for so many players that grew up playing outside.
For Schroeder that includes graduating to organized hockey that included the occasional practice on the "10 to 15" more formal outdoor rinks that were maintained around Lakeville. From there it was onto high school hockey, the United States National Team Development Program and the University of Minnesota, where after one season the Canucks picked him 22nd in the 2009 NHL Draft.
For all the formal development along the way, Schroeder still credits time spent playing outside for developing the speed and skill that has allowed him to make the NHL at 5-foot-8 and 175 pounds.
"Some days I would be out there all day and that's where you work on your hands and have fun, just being out there and playing," Schroeder said. "I think that's part of being a kid. Nowadays everyone is into power skating and stuff like that at such a young age. But for me personally I never had any of that. It was just go outdoors."
As Schroeder got older and moved on to bigger ponds and outdoor rinks beyond his neighbor's backyard, it often meant playing against older kids, which also sped his learning curve.
"I developed quicker as a younger player because a lot of the older guys around the rinks and around the neighborhood would let me play with them," Schroeder said. "It was a quicker pace with the older kids and you had to keep up to them, so I think that helped a lot."
It also produced some of Schroeder's fondest memories in hockey.
"Just gathering all your friends together and saying let's go down to the rink and play shinny all day," he said. "That's the best. We'd bring pizza and the moms would bring hot chocolate and we'd all go into the warming house after a while and warm up."
And what exactly is a warming house?
"Legit warming houses," Schroeder said with a laugh. "Little houses with heaters and everything right next to the outdoor rink."
There won't be any of those at the Heritage Classic, but there will be plenty of fond memories for players that grew up playing outdoors. For Schroeder, they include creating the desire and opportunity to make it to the NHL, a journey that now takes him back to those roots on his neighbor's backyard pond.