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NHL Heritage Classic

Winnipeg quite used to outdoor hockey

Players from Heritage Classic host city grew up being exposed to brutal weather

by Tim Campbell / Staff Writer

WINNIPEG -- Long before he became a professional hockey player, Mike Keane was an early-day myth-buster.

Playing outdoor hockey during the long, cold winters in Winnipeg presented many challenges, but, according to Keane, many falsehoods too.

"The whole philosophy of having two pairs of socks on, that's a crock," the former NHL forward said. "People tell you to bundle up because it's cold but two pairs of socks was no good.

"And Vaseline on the face? That was another one. It didn't help much in the wind. Vaseline, OK, but it's still freezing outside and it doesn't do much. After a while, you realize that two pairs of socks is stupid because your feet couldn't breathe. A thinner pair always kept your feet warmer."

When the Winnipeg Jets and Edmonton Oilers play in the 2016 Tim Hortons NHL Heritage Classic at Investors Group Field on Sunday (3 p.m. ET; NHLN, SN, TVA Sports2, NHL.TV), staying warm may not be an issue, with the temperature for the outdoor game expected to be in the mid-40s.

But for anyone who grows up playing outdoor hockey in Winnipeg, staying warm is essential. Outdoor hockey in Winnipeg is a way of life, a culture of its own, with hundreds of sheets of ice in the area.

The weather, while brutal at times, makes it possible.

"We're still the ones with the cold-enough and the long-enough winter to have the outdoor rinks," Chicago Blackhawks captain and Winnipeg native Jonathan Toews said. "It lasts for a long time. So not quite the case in a lot of places nowadays."

Video: Check out a time lapse at Investors Group Field

Keane's earliest childhood memories including skating and playing at T.R. Hodgson Park and Sir John Franklin Community Club, two of the seven outdoor rinks Keane estimates were within walking distance of his family's home, and two of 205 in Winnipeg, according to city officials.

That includes rinks at community clubs, many of which have two or three rinks, and others that the city sets up by flooding basketball or tennis courts during the winter.

One popular rink is now named the Dakota Community Centre Jonathan Toews Sportsplex, which was a second home for Toews. His first home was a backyard rink built by his father, Bryan.

"I've told that story a lot, but it is the story of my hockey career," Toews said. "I'd spend hours out there. Yeah, it was a pretty cool way to grow up. Not that you take it for granted as a kid, but you don't maybe realize how lucky you are to be able to go out there and play a game you love every single day. So yeah, I was spoiled in that regard.

"My brother and I were out there with our buddies a lot of hours throughout the week. It was fun. We had a blast. It was a great way to learn the game."

The daily winter routine for many kids in Winnipeg was the same: Get home from school, do homework as quickly as possible, scarf down dinner and head to the rink.

"You'd try to be there by 6 o'clock until they shut the lights off at 10," said Keane, who played 1,161 NHL regular-season games for the Montreal Canadiens, Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars, New York Rangers, St. Louis Blues and Vancouver Canucks. "And you'd be looking forward to it all day."

Randy Gilhen, a forward who played 457 NHL games, said playing indoors "was a treat."

"I remember so many times my feet would be frozen (from playing outdoors) and my dad or mom were rubbing my feet, or you were jumping up and down trying for circulation," said Gilhen, who won the Stanley Cup with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1991.

"It was reality back in those days. You practiced outside all the time. Playing AAA hockey when I was 15, we practiced outside once a week. That's unheard of now."

As for the effectiveness of Vaseline on the face? "Yeah, Vaseline, that was a good one," the 53-year-old Gilhen said, scoffing like Keane. "The hardest part of playing outdoors on a cold day, well I remember jumping up and down, banging my heels constantly on the bench, trying to keep the circulation in my feet and toes so they wouldn't freeze. And you had gloves under your hockey gloves."

But the experience, as cold as it may have been, is something none of them would trade for anything. Still, it wasn't always easy.

"Many times I went home just bawling because my feet were so sore from being frozen," said Keane, 49. "You'd put your feet on the register at home and pins and needles would start and they'd thaw out and you'd be fine.

"It was just part of the game.

"And God forbid you'd shoot the puck over the mesh, because then you had to go get it, tromp through snow. No pails of pucks then. Then you'd go inside, warm up again, get your swamp water (a mix of different sodas in one glass) and pack of Blue Whales (candy) and away you'd go."

It was more than learning the game for Jordy Douglas, who played 268 games in the NHL for the Hartford Whalers, Minnesota North Stars and the Jets. "It was where we spent every breath of our lives in winter," said Douglas, 58. "As kids, it was a paradise for us."

Winnipeg winters are the subject of much derision. It's a winter city, no doubt, but residents and kids on outdoor rinks have few concerns about outdoor activities when the temperatures are in the normal range of minus 10 to minus 20 Celsius. Granted, there are days when the wind whips and the evening lows can reach into the minus 30s. Bring it on, says Keane.

"Winnipeg has a bad rap," Keane said. "I don't remember anyone wearing a Speedo and cowboy boots in the middle of winter in Montreal when I played there. It's [very] cold there, too. To me, way colder. Minus 30 here is fine. You bundle up. There, minus 10 goes through your bones. It goes through you.

"Hey, it's winter. And as a kid growing up, you couldn't ask for a better place. Winnipeg rinks were a dime a dozen. Many places had two or three rinks. You couldn't beat it."

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