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Starting out on frozen ponds

by Shawn P. Roarke

21-year NHL veteran, Paul Coffey, played outside extensively during the Ontario winters of his childhood.
Even the most legendary NHL careers had their start on the pond.

Outdoor hockey, it seems, is the one unifying force that intersects the careers of virtually anyone that has played the game at an elite level.

The frozen pond -- a welcoming vision for anyone that loves the game, no matter their skill level -- has, for time immortal, served as the training ground for great players before they entered the more structured world of organized hockey.

NHL fans today know that the Staal family used an outdoor rink on their sod farm in Thunder Bay, Ont., to produce a quartet of elite hockey players, three of whom already call the NHL home.

The legend of Wayne Gretzky’s improbable domination of the game he loved begins with a backyard rink lovingly crafted by Gretzky’s father, Walter. It soon became Gretzky’s rink of dreams, the canvas upon which he fashioned the jaw-dropping skill set that revolutionized the game.

“Outdoor hockey is what it is all about,” said Paul Coffey, who played outside extensively during the Ontario winters of his childhood. Today, Coffey has a 21-year NHL career and a Hockey Hall of Fame induction on his impressive hockey resume.

“It was a great way to grow up,” said Billy Smith, who also called the Ontario ponds home before graduating to the NHL, four Stanley Cup championships with the New York Islanders, and a Hockey Hall of Fame induction.

Today, all of the game’s greats still light up when asked to recall those long days of shinny with family and friends. And each is quick to point out that those long hours of unsupervised hockey laid the groundwork for greatness down the road.

Lanny McDonald scored 500 goals in his NHL career, but still says one of his biggest hockey achievements was earning the respect of his older brother on the pond near the family homestead in Craigmyle, Alberta.

“Playing against my brother and his friends was one of the best things for me,” McDonald said. “He said to keep up or don’t play – and no whining!”

Steve Shutt, meanwhile, credits the hand-eye coordination he learned on the pond with helping him overcome an average skating stride and become a deadly scorer for the Montreal Canadiens. But he also said that the pond right near his house was good for quite a few lighthearted moments.

“I remember one time, we were having Sunday night dinner and, of course, everyone else was still playing hockey. We’re just about ready to serve dinner and all of a sudden, a puck comes right through the window and right onto the dinner table. That’s a hockey family!”

The inspiration and the humor that are the cornerstones of outdoor hockey are virtually endless. Today, as part of the run-up to the Winter Classic, has gathered some of the biggest names in hockey history to talk about their outdoor-hockey experiences.

Steve Shutt discusses the family rink and its eventual effect on one memorable Sunday dinner.

Billy Smith talks about the role his dad played in making outdoor hockey possible for Billy and his friends.

Paul Coffey recalls the thrill of competing against older kids on the neighborhood pond.

Clark Gillies explains how his pond hockey-performances paved his way into organized hockey.

Rod Langway talks about skating until 1 a.m. every day during the winter.

Lanny McDonald relays the earliest secret to his success.

Lanny McDonald was a busy boy at school during the winter.

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