For a young hockey player, few things are as exhilarating as the first few strides on a clean ice surface on a backyard rink or frozen pond. Without rules and structure of coaches, referees or parents, to a hockey player, outdoor ice looks very much like a blank canvas appears to an artist. The creativity and color that a player can paint on the ice surface is limited only to his or her imagination.
It is on an outdoor rink where so many youngsters fall in love with the game. The frozen pond is where a group of friends can play for hours without keeping score. Clocks and scoreboards are the bane of shinny hockey’s existence—where a game can last as long as there are players willing to skate and floodlights to perpetuate visibility into the still hours of the night.
If there is no game to be had, the backyard rink is a sanctuary where a single child can be entertained simply with a stick and puck, practicing skills and emulating their National Hockey League heroes. A youngster can slice through the defense, deke a goaltender and score the Game 7 overtime goal in his mind. Sure, there might be boards around the local outdoor rink to help keep pucks from flying out of play, but there are no boundaries to restrain a player’s creativity under an open sky.
The pond is a place where time stands still or, quite possibly, even reverses. Men instantly transform into little boys with rosy cheeks bordering their glowing smiles. As a player grows older, their
time spent on the outdoor rink is betrayed by practices and games, responsibility and life. In life’s later acts, when youthful exuberance fades like an old photograph, the thought of pond hockey ignites nostalgia of simpler times. As they look back at the innocence of bygone days on the outdoor ice, they light up at the memory of playing without the rubric of a rulebook.
After a robust practice, sweat still glazed on his face, Minnesota Wild forward Ryan Carter perks up when he is asked if he ever played outdoor hockey as a child.
“I grew up in a great neighborhood where they had three or four neighbors that their backyards joined together and they put a rink in with floodlights and boards,” Carter said.
Every winter their fathers created a hockey haven for the boys. One of the parents had a friend with the fire department and, low and behold, acquired a fire hose to flood the rink.
“I don’t know if people are going to get in trouble over this or not, but, yeah,” Carter laughed. “I don’t know the whole story, but that thing was kept under lock and key because the dads were in charge of flooding it and that expedited the process. They weren’t risking that thing getting taken away.
“We had a good setup.”
Carter would jump a fence, help shovel off the ice and skate with his friends for hours on end. A first generation hockey player, his passion for hockey was sparked on the neighbors’ rink. His father, Mike, didn’t know much of anything about the game. In fact he once bought the lefty a right-handed stick. So, it was skating against his counterparts on the outdoor ice where he learned the game.
“I idolized the older kids in the neighborhood—there were some good players,” Carter said. “I’d go watch them play and it rooted the love of hockey for me.”
His best childhood friend, Chad Larson, was one of the boys with the backyard rink. There was a snow-packed path leading to Larson’s house. Whenever they needed a break, they wouldn’t have to take off their skates.
“We’d walk right into the house and sit there and his mom would make us hot chocolate,” Carter said. “Warm up for about 15 minutes and go out there and do it all again.”
Carter can remember skating on the rink at the age of six. As they grew older, the boys’ shinny games went deeper into the night. Other times, they would work on their shooting accuracy and ring pucks off the medal posts with floodlights illuminating the ice.
While it is a young hockey player’s dream to skate into the twilight hours every night with no supervision, a neighbor trying to tuck young children into bed is not as enthusiastic about the sounds of cracking sticks and pucks clanging steel.
“We’d be hitting the posts until it was too late and they’d call the police,” Carter said.
The neighborhood was located on a cul-de-sac, so they could see the cop cars arrive before they flicked on the spotlight. The boys were staying out of trouble by devoting late-night hours on the rink. It was all light-hearted fun and, for the police officers, nothing to get too worked up about.
“Pretty sure they knew us by name by the end of winter. ‘Alright Ryan, Chad, Derrick, you guys have got to go inside,’” Carter said. “Alright, officers. See you tomorrow.” Northwest of the State of Hockey, in Edmonton, Alberta, where Canadian boys ingest the game like a steak dinner, Wild defenseman Jared Spurgeon had a similar upbringing on a backyard rink. Spurgeon’s father, Barry, built a rink for his brother, Tyler, and him.
The rink, which was about three-quarters the size of the Wild’s locker room, served as the boys’ winter playground. The father and sons would alternate between forward, defender and goalie. The brothers were only three years apart in age, so there was always someone to play with and against.
“It’s a good way to bond,” Spurgeon said. “There’s a lot of competition in the family, too, so there were a couple broken sticks and fights.”
Like many smaller backyard rinks, the Spurgeon’s boards were made of packed snow. As winter lingered, the walls would climb higher as the boys shoveled off the surface. The falling snow didn’t prevent them from playing—it simply delayed the game, as did missing the net.
“If you fired one wide it would stick in there and you’d have to dig for about 10 minutes to find it,” Spurgeon said.
As the seasons turned, the spring sun would begin to reveal lost treasures. The snow would begin
to melt and with the assistance of little black dots scattered around, the yard would begin to resemble a giant piece of Swiss cheese.
“When it came spring time, you just collect the pucks that went over the net. It was a yearly thing,” Spurgeon said. “Sometimes it would take you until August to find a puck behind a tree.”
As the boys grew older, the backyard became too small for neighborhood games. Just a five-minute walk, the Spurgeon brothers’ elementary school had an outdoor rink that was kept flooded the entire winter.
Sometimes, they’d bring their skates to school and rip around the rink at lunchtime. Mostly, they’d play games after school hours, when there were no teachers around or recess bells to call them back inside
Back in Minnesota, one of the state’s most well-known and picturesque outdoor rinks is located behind an old high school. The Handke Pit is a glacier-formed bowl behind the former Elk River High School, an idyllic setting for a rink resting in a depressed plot of land and shielded from the winter wind. Dedicated in 1925 and enlarged as part of the New Deal, The Pit is listed on the National Registry of Historic Sites.
For more than a century, thousands have skated at The Pit, including Wild defenseman Nate Prosser. The Minnesota native would tag along with his older brother, Luke, and join the older boys for games at The Pit.
“Our parents would drop us off and we’d bring a bag lunch and some snacks,” Prosser said. “Drop us off at noon, eat lunch out there and stay until dinner time.
“I definitely bugged my brother a lot and he probably didn’t like having me around him and his buddies all the time, but I was always there to tag along.”
There was never a need to round-up friends for a game at The Pit, especially on warmer days. It seemed like every young hockey player in the town would flock to the rink like mallards to a watering hole. For Prosser, playing outdoors with the older boys set the tone for how he’d approach the game.
“Just going against the stronger and bigger kids, that might be where I found my chippiness,” Prosser said with a smile. “I needed to use my stick a little more than those other guys.”
Last year, the state celebrated Hockey Day Minnesota on the fabled outdoor rink. Thousands of fans flooded The Pit for the annual festival, which has become synonymous with outdoor games, as high school teams have competed under open skies in various locations throughout the State of Hockey. Fittingly, Prosser scored the game-winning goal in overtime to lift the Wild over the Dallas Stars on HDM 2014.
Wild owner Craig Leipold was in attendance in Elk River that day and was petitioning the NHL for an outdoor game in Minnesota. Leipold, to the delight of many in the State of Hockey, will see his wish granted next season, as the Wild will host the Chicago Blackhawks at TCF Bank Stadium as part of the 2016 Coors Light Stadium Series on Sunday, Feb. 21.
“We are thrilled to finally have a Stadium Series game here for the great fans of the State of Hockey,” Wild Chief Operating Officer Matt Majka said. “It’s been a long time coming and yet we’ve all earned it together. So Feb. 21 of 2016, we’ll have a heck of a celebration.”
The NHL has three variations of outdoor games: the Heritage Classic, Winter Classic and Stadium Series.
“Our fans, our players have a great time with these games,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman told WildTV last season. “It’s really a wonderful celebration of our sport.”
The Heritage Class between the Montreal Canadiens and Edmonton Oilers in 2003 was the first NHL regular season game to be played in an open-air stadium. Since then, outdoor games have become more prevalent.
In 2008, the inaugural Winter Classic was played on New Year’s Day between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Buffalo Sabres at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, N.Y., in front of 71,217 bundled-up fans. Wild forwards Jason Pominville and Thomas Vanek both skated for the Sabres as the temperatures hovered around freezing and snow-flakes fell, slowing gameplay, but making for a spectacular vista.
Last season, the League expanded the outdoor contests to include the Stadium Series, hosting four such games in three different locations, one of which was Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. Carter played for the New Jersey Devils in the second game of the series at Yankee Stadium in New York. Although the outcome wasn’t as memorable as he would’ve liked, with the Devils losing to the New York Rangers, the game was a chance of a lifetime.
“It was cool. It’s really neat to bring your family and friends and show them what it’s like and get to experience that with you,” Carter said. “The NHL and the teams do a good job of making it about the game, but it’s about family too and enjoying that event with them.”
However, Carter feels an outdoor event in the State of Hockey, with the state’s love affair with hockey under the reaching Minnesota sky, would be special. The 31-year-old suggests the game be played under the stars.
“It would be like being a kid again,” Carter grinned. “A night game, outside, under the lights would take me back 20-some- thing years.”
With the TCF Bank Stadium’s capacity over 50,000, Minnesotans will attend the game in droves. More than 2,000 fans came to The John R. Rose OVAL in Roseville to watch the Wild’s outdoor practice on Dec. 21. The annual event has become a fan favorite.
“The fan response to this event has been fantastic,” said Jim Vanek, Wild Manager of Events.
“Not only does it offer people a chance to see the team up close and personal, but to have it take place in an environment that so many of them are familiar with adds another level of enjoyment. As Minnesotans, many of us have fond memories of skating on the pond or at the neighborhood rink.
“To be able to see the players in that setting really resonates with our fans.”
For the players, the informal setting was a great way to interact with fans, signing autographs and posing for pictures. It was a warm day that broke up a cold month of December and the falling snow evoked visions of their youth, even if it restricted the actual visibility.
“It’s a bit different when you have a visor on, it’s hard to see, but the atmosphere really made the day great,” Spurgeon said. “We lost the first game so we had to shovel. But that was the standard. Even at the rink up the street, if it was too snowy, there would be a bunch of shovels on the side so you could do it yourself.”
Young or old, amateur or professional, skating beneath blue skies or guided by floodlights at night, the outdoor game is special to hockey players. It is where the sport can be played in a natural state. For anyone who has taken a deep, cold breath while cutting into the crisp, clean ice of an outdoor rink or pond, it’s a near religious experience, one that the hockey gods created to reward and gain disciples.
“That’s where it started,” Carter said. “I fell in love with the game playing outside.”