By Glenn Odebralski for floridapanthers.com
|Fenway Park hosts the third Winter Classic on January 1st (Credit: Boston Bruins)
That’s really the best way to describe the NHL’s Winter Classic.
And what has become an annual spectacle, with the third Winter Classic slated for Friday at Fenway Park between Boston and Philadelphia, really got started back in 2003. Then it was the Heritage Classic as the Edmonton Oilers hosted the Montreal Canadiens.
Panthers winger Radek Dvorak remembers it fondly.
“It was something different,” said Dvorak, who played for the Oilers at the time. “It’s something you’ll always remember. It was a lot of excitement between the fans, the players.”
What really made a lasting memory for Dvorak was how the fans took to it.
“We had a game with 80,000 people watching,” said Dvorak. “The people in the stands were there at two o’clock in the afternoon. They watched the first game and then were there for our game and it was like minus-24 Celsius outside.”
The Winter Classic came along four years later when the Buffalo Sabres hosted the Pittsburgh Penguins at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo. Then last year it was the Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings at Wrigley Field in Chicago.
And the event has gotten bigger and better each year.
“There’s a couple of rewards throughout the seasons now,” said Panthers goaltending coach Robb Tallas, who spent parts of five seasons playing for the Bruins. “The start of the season in Europe which is kind of fun and exciting.
“This would definitely be one of them to play. I think in the past, the league has done a tremendous job with these Winter Classics and the fan support has been unbelievable.”
This year’s version takes place in Boston and at Fenway Park, a baseball cathedral. And there might not be a better place to have it.
“It’s great, especially for Boston,” said Tallas. “Boston’s an amazing city for their fans. I think that in recent years, with the Championships in Fenway Park and the Patriots, this just adds to it. That town is a blue-collar town that loves their sports and I think for the opportunity to see the game like that.”
“I’m sure it’s going to be a great experience playing in Fenway Park for those guys,” said defenseman Dennis Seidenberg, who spent the first two and a half years of his NHL career with Philadelphia and playing with current Flyers Mike Richards and Jeff Carter. “There’s a lot of tradition in that stadium.”
“Fenway Park is a Cathedral to Boston sports fans and as a baseball fan, you always dream about playing in some of the places like that,” said goaltender Scott Clemmensen
|Workers continue to prepare the hockey rink on the infield at Fenway Park in Boston Thursday, Dec. 17, 2009 in advance of the Winter Classic NHL hockey game between the Boston Bruins and Philadelphia Flyers on Jan. 1, 2010. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola) |
And Clemmensen knows a thing or two about Boston and Fenway Park. Growing up a Cubs fan, he switched allegiances while playing hockey for Boston College. His alma mater will also take part in an outside game at Fenway, playing against Boston University on January 8th.
“The tradition of the Boston Red Sox and of Fenway Park in particular transcends any of us,” said Clemmensen. “Just to be able to play hockey in a baseball field like Fenway Park would be something special.”
“You look to your right and you’re going to have the Green Monster and the outfield and you look to your left and it’s going to see the fans.”
It’s already being argued where the next Classic should be. New York and Yankee Stadium or maybe in Las Vegas as a warmer climate or in Minnesota or somewhere in Canada.
But why has it become such a hot commodity where every player wants to play in it?
“Every hockey player would love to play in one of those games in their career,” said Seidenberg. “It’s a great event.”
“For the outside game, it doesn’t matter where you play,” said Dvorak. “If it’s a football stadium, baseball stadium, as long as you’re outside, you can go through this experience and that’s what matters.”
The reason the Winter Classic is so popular among players and fans alike though is that it brings back the memories of when hockey was pure and it's easy as that.
“For the majority of the guys that play hockey, they grew up in winter cities,” said Tallas. “I think growing up in Canada especially, if you didn’t have a pond to skate on, your dad froze the backyard and you skated at night, all night until it was time to go to bed. It’s just something to this day, still happens. Guys skate with the local team but any chance you can skate in the backyard or on a pond, there’s no better feeling. It’s a lot of fun and it’s where you fall in love with the game the most.
“I think that kind of brings that back (the Winter Classic) and the NHL really made that clear that is what it’s about and yet you’re playing a regular season game on it.
"It’s just an amazing experience.”