It was, for them, a moment of pure joy, pure exhilaration, a moment that harkened back to childhoods spent playing outdoors, on ponds, for nothing more than the love of the game. There were no contracts then, no full-time jobs, no standings, playoff positioning or worry. Then, there was just hockey.
That joy and exhilaration has yielded generations of hockey players, something built out of ponds and rinks and childhoods, something that has lasted for 100 years. That was celebrated last weekend, when the Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings gathered on New Year's Day to play in the 2017 Scotiabank NHL Centennial Classic at Exhibition Stadium in Toronto, and one day later the St. Louis Blues and Chicago Blackhawks gathered to play in the 2017 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic at Busch Stadium in St. Louis.
One hundred years. One hundred years of dreams and aspirations, one hundred years of building a legacy, all culminating in a step back to the origins, outside.
"When something is built, there is a tendency to forget it once didn't exist, that it once was just simply someone's idea," narrator Bill Camp says in the introduction to the fourth episode of EPIX'S "Road to the NHL Outdoor Classics," which debuted Friday. "Well, 100 years later, this is what the idea of the National Hockey League has produced."
And this, this show and this insight and this celebration of hockey is a tribute to its creators, to the four crews of cameras and sound men assembled by renowned executive producer Ross Greenburg, to Steve Stern's producing, to Aaron Cohen's writing. The combination makes the game come alive, makes the players come alive, makes us come alive. It makes us fall in love, the way we have for 100 years, on ponds and in rinks, in the United States and in Canada, and all over the world.
We start early, at 5:30 a.m., riding with Mike Babcock, coach of the Maple Leafs. It is dark and the slick streets of Toronto are deserted.
"One hundred years is one hundred years, pretty special for the National Hockey League," Babcock says. "But I think, and this is just me, the most exciting part for me is it looks to me like our franchise is about to turn a corner. So I think you add it all together with the outdoor game, the Centennial Classic, 100 years of the League, all that stuff, and then you put the kind of group we have in there, it's a pretty exciting time here in Toronto."
Toronto has, after all, been such a big part of the League's first 100 years. Babcock hopes - and believes he can see - how exactly it might fit in to the League's next 100, and at least its next few. He sees promise and talent and excitement at his fingertips, on the sticks of the rookies he is helping to raise to great heights.
The rest of the teams are looking to be raised as well; the Red Wings come into their game struggling find their footing, the Blackhawks come in on a losing streak both this season and in outdoor games in general, and the Blues still are searching for their first Stanley Cup in 50 years of existence.
"It's a lot of fun," Blackhawks defenseman Brian Campbell says, "but there's a big game to be played. We've got to find a way to win it."
Nevertheless, there remains time for that fun.
The Blues get a chance to try out the batting cages at Busch Stadium, taking a page from the St. Louis Cardinals, some of whom will show up at their park to support the city's hockey team at the Winter Classic. In turn, we learn how truly awful center Patrik Berglund is with a bat in his hands. And how good forward Scottie Upshall is.
There, again, is the next generation, when the Blues, Blackhawks, Maple Leafs and Red Wings take to the ice with their families. There is the purity of spirit, the idea of passing the game on and down to those still unsure on their legs, still learning to skate.
It is not just sons and daughters. It is a generation behind as well, with the stars and veterans of yesteryear joining in on the fun, in the mocking and the hockey and the delight in once again taking the ice.
The memories, too.
"Remember back when you could actually make the other bench laugh?" Darren McCarty asks a room full of Red Wings.
There are autographs exchanged between the current and former stars, between the Hall of Fame players and the ones who will eventually join them.
"The Blackhawks-Blues alumni game offers some big names of its own," Camp says. "Not to mention the familiar smiles that come from the faces of men getting to pretend they're boys again."
But nothing is bigger than the games themselves, than the moment the teams step on the ice and get to play the 60 minutes (or more) they have been waiting for all year, complete with all the drama they ever could have anticipated.
"I seriously think the games would be more fun if we played outside," Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo says from the bench during the Winter Classic. "Way more fun."
By the end, sweat has been shed, perhaps some blood, hopes have been raised and dashed. The Red Wings and Blackhawks exit the ice in defeat, and the Maple Leafs and Blues share their victories with their home crowds, that joy and that exhilaration spilling over. It was, as Blues forward Ryan Reaves put it, "the experience of a lifetime."
And so another year is in the books, another set of outdoor games has been completed. We have seen the past meet the present and we have seen how bright the future is. There is so much to look back on, and for the NHL in its Centennial season, so much still ahead.