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NHL Heritage Classic

Pionk has high expectations for Heritage Classic with Jets

Defenseman prepares for outdoor game against Flames with eye on childhood memories

by Tim Campbell @TimNHL / Staff Writer

WINNIPEG -- Neal Pionk spent much of his childhood playing hockey on frozen ponds and backyard rinks, so he has high expectations for his first NHL outdoor game at the 2019 Tim Hortons NHL Heritage Classic between the Winnipeg Jets and Calgary Flames at Mosaic Stadium in Regina, Saskatchewan on Saturday (10 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, SN1, CITY, TVAS2, NHL.TV).

"I've seen them on TV but never been to one, never attended one," the 24-year-old Jets defenseman said. "It should be good weather. I'm expecting it to bring back memories of my childhood, whether on the pond at Pike Lake or over at Hermantown (Minnesota), just skating outside and having fun with my friends."

Pionk is passionate about outdoor hockey memories. The early ones include the family's backyard rink, constructed by his dad Scott, filled with the garden hose, and his mom, Karen, dropping him and his brothers -- Corbin, now 30, Nate, 23, Joe, 20 and Aaron, 16 -- off at one of the five outdoor rinks in Hermantown for the entire day.

Video: Mosaic Stadium gets set for 2019 Heritage Classic

Another tradition evolved with Neal and Nate and two other hockey-mad families in the Duluth area, where Hermantown, a city of about 10,000, is considered a suburb.

He said it was 10 or 11 winters ago that they joined with members of the Aamodt and Koepke families for the annual Holiday Cup. Usually conducted on a day over the Thanksgiving or Christmas holidays, it was an outdoor tournament that began with older brothers against younger brothers.

"We had the games at our house or one at an outdoor rink or at the Aamodts," Pionk said. "They lived on Pike Lake and we'd go there. A couple of winters it was too cold, so we went inside at the Hermantown Ice Arena. So, a couple of asterisks but for the most part it was outside."

Nate Pionk said the Holiday Cup began as serious competition.

"It started as a simple 3-on-3, shovel off [the lake] and then let me tell you, it was full contact," Nate said. "No destroying each other or knocking anybody out, but when we were younger, we liked to bump into each other. There would be a few high sticks, a black eye here and there, maybe a cut on the chin. Our parents weren't too happy about it."

Nate remembers the original teams: Himself, Travis Koepke, Wyatt Aamodt against Neal, Cole Koepke and Wade Aamodt. Today, Neal is an NHL defenseman, Wyatt is a 21-year-old defenseman at Minnesota State University Mankato and Cole is a 21-year-old forward at University of Minnesota Duluth.

"It was pretty even, and we'd just play a best-of-7, each game up to five goals," Nate said. "It was a blast. We eventually got a Cup for it and started calling it the Holiday Cup and we wrote our names on the side of it and would hoist it.

"So now what it's turned into is the three families and a buddy gets added every year or so and now it's up to 4-on-4, sometimes 5-on-5. It's always a fun event, always some laughs. It's a great time."


[RELATED: Rittich, Hellebuyck unveil Heritage Classic goalie equipment]


The youngest Pionk brothers, Joe and Aaron, joined the Holiday Cup in recent years.

"When we started, they were pretty young and physically smaller," Nate said. "Mom would be out there saying, 'Let them play,' but we're saying, 'Mom, we're trying to actually play for something here and we can't have Joe and Aaron in our way.' Now that Aaron's bigger, they're involved, and we loved that."

For Neal, who has six points (two goals, four assists) in 10 games this season and 46 points (nine goals, 37 assists) in 111 NHL games with the Jets and New York Rangers, the joy of playing outdoors in Hermantown remains strong.

"I know it's cliché, but it's the freedom," he said. "I look at it in the literal sense, that you don't have a roof over your head but it's also in the metaphorical sense, where you don't have a coach or a scout looking at you. You do whatever you want. Who cares if you make a mistake? Nobody cares. It's about fun.

"And you kind of get the symbolic sense of the breeze blowing in your face, the open space, the open sky. There's no coaches, no scouts, nobody's critiquing you, there's no systems. Do whatever you want. That appeals to me and that appeals to a lot of kids hopefully still today. I know that definitely did when I was a kid growing up with my brothers."

He hopes that joy will continue. The families missed playing the Holiday Cup last winter for the first time since it started -- in part there wasn't time for Neal, playing his first full season with the Rangers, to get home during a short holiday break.

It is, however, on the tentative agenda for this winter, Nate said.

"I'd say it's a pending thing," he said. "When we get older, it gets harder. Everyone's busy. What we've talked about doing it maybe during the [NHL] All-Star break or at Christmas."

Before the next Holiday Cup takes place, Nate will be able to watch his older brother experience a new kind of outdoor game at the Heritage Classic.

"It's awesome," he said. "It's once in a lifetime when you get to play on a stage that big, outside and at something that spectacular and cool. Most people don't get to do that. I know everyone here's going to be watching and my mom is going, so it's a big deal."

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