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'Good memories': Winter Classic takes Stars back to their roots

Whether a veteran of NHL outdoor games or backyard rinks, Dallas' players agree: This will be special

by Mark Stepneski @StarsInsideEdge / Inside Edge

When the Winter Classic comes to Cotton Bowl Stadium in Dallas next Jan. 1, it will be the latest of the games designed to take hockey back to its roots -- the outdoors, frozen ponds and lakes, and backyard rinks.

"That's good memories," said Stars defenseman John Klingberg. "That's how you started playing, right?"

Those outdoor roots vary, depending on where players began lacing up the skates.  

Toronto, Ontario.

"My dad used to build a rink in our backyard," said Stars center Tyler Seguin. "It was more the difficulty of keeping the ice going than all the memories of being out there, but it was always a lot of fun, and that is where hockey started -- out on a pond or ice outdoors."

Montreal, Quebec.

"I remember playing on outdoor rinks. There were parks in Montreal, so it wasn't like on a lake," said Stars coach Jim Montgomery. "That's where we played eight against eight and learned how to give and go. That's what I remember. There were frozen toes and hot chocolate after."

Victoria, British Columbia.

"We didn't have snowstorms or outdoor ponds in Victoria, it was a lot of road hockey," said Stars captain Jamie Benn. "Countless memories of playing outside with my brother and my buddies. It was tough for my parents to get us inside and get our homework done."

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Gothenburg, Sweden.

"There was winter where it was really cold, and we went up to the forest, and we could skate around there on a small lake, it was really frozen," said Klingberg. "We put up two nets and played our [butts] off. There were a lot of kids, probably 10 to 20 kids skating. The ice was horrible, but it was so fun.

"That's how you start playing hockey. You have a pair of skates at home and play at the lakes that are frozen, but that is probably more common in Canada. I was living so close to the rink that every time after school I took off to the rink. Lot of hockey when you were a kid for sure."

Ostrava, Czech Republic.

"When I grew up there was an outdoor rink," Stars defenseman Roman Polak said. "We were practicing there, playing the games, everything. Everything was outdoors."

Minneapolis, Minnesota.

"That's all we did. We were outside playing hockey," said Stars forward Tyler Pitlick. "Mom was bringing pizza in the afternoon, and we stayed there all day until we had to go home for dinner. A lot of fun, lots of memories. It should bring some back."

Pitlick's memories of playing outdoors go beyond his youth. He's played in a couple of outdoor games as a pro, including the Heritage Classic between the Edmonton Oilers and Winnipeg Jets at Investors Group Field in Winnipeg on Oct. 23, 2016.

"It was fun. The whole lead up, and everything is fun. The morning skate experience is fun. The game is what it is; it's another game," Pitlick said. "You notice more in the practice because you are having fun and you can appreciate it. During the game, you're in it, the adrenaline is going, and you are just trying to get into the game."

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While Winnipeg would seem like an ideal spot for an outdoor game (truth be told it was actually 50 degrees Fahrenheit at puck drop that day and the game had to be delayed because of the sun), Pitlick said he doesn't find an outdoor game in Texas to be that farfetched.

"I played an outdoor game (in the AHL) in Sacramento, California. That's about as weird as it gets," Pitlick said. "Got a rain delay. It was crazy. [Dallas] should be good. Hopefully, we don't get any rain here next year."

Polak played in two outdoor games with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the 2017 Centennial Classic against Detroit at BMO Field in Toronto and a Stadium Series game last March against Washington at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Maryland.

"It's a great experience. The place is buzzing. Great feeling," Polak said. "It's way different. Too much going on. Totally different game. It's a different experience. The crowd, the sun, the wind. Sometimes it is raining; sometimes it is snowing.

"As a player, you have to prepare a different way. You have to focus and not get distracted too much. But when you are done with it, you are like 'This is unbelievable.' "

Montgomery coached an outdoor game when he was at the University of Denver, taking on Colorado College at Coors Field. That game came a week before the 2016 Stadium Series tilt at Coors Field between the Colorado Avalanche and Detroit Red Wings.

"It feels like a Super Bowl event," Montgomery said. "The Winter Classic doesn't get any better. It's going to be a great event for the state of Texas and hockey in general."

And that's why there is so much excitement in the Stars organization about the 2020 Winter Classic coming to Dallas and Cotton Bowl Stadium. It is a signature event for the NHL and the game, and Dallas and the Stars will take center stage Jan 1, 2020.

"It's huge for Texas. It's huge to build the game. It's the spotlight for sure," said Klingberg. "It will be hockey, hockey at that point here in Dallas. I am really excited for it."

"It's going to be a cool experience, not only for myself and the rest of the guys," Benn said, "but for the fans, the city of Dallas. It is going to be cool."

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club.

Mark Stepneski has covered the Stars for since 2012. Follow him on Twitter @StarsInsideEdge.

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