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. There was just hockey.
That joy and exhilaration have 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 sport's 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 during the introduction to the fourth episode of EPIX's "Road to the NHL Outdoor Classics," which debuts 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 Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock. It is dark, and the slick streets of Toronto are deserted. Babcock discusses how Toronto has fit into the League's first 100 years and how exactly it might fit into the next 100, certainly the 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, who come into their game struggling to find their footing; the Blackhawks, who come in on a losing streak both this season and in outdoor games in general; the Blues, who still are searching for their first Stanley Cup 50 years after entering the NHL.
Video: Episode 4 Preview: Red Wings fan's wish comes true
As Blackhawks defenseman Brian Campbell acknowledges, "It's a lot of fun, 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.
There is the next generation, the Blues, Blackhawks, Maple Leafs and Red Wings taking 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 too, 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.
But nothing is bigger than the games themselves, than the moment the teams actually step on the ice, actually 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.
By the end, sweat has been shed (perhaps along with some blood), hopes have been raised and dashed; the Red Wings and Blackhawks exiting the ice in defeat, the Maple Leafs and Blues sharing their victories with their home crowds, as that joy and that exhilaration spilled 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.