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When Hockey Goes Outside, Expect The Unexpected

by Evan Sporer / Minnesota Wild

After a year of anticipation and planning, the 2016 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series™ game is finally here. But as four Wild players with outdoor hockey experience will tell you — Mother Nature is a different and unpredictable host.

To level the competitive advantage, the NHL has teams switch ends midway through the third period of its outdoor hockey games. With howling winds, the glare of the sun, or snowfall piling up, each team gets 30 minutes of regulation time shooting at each end.

On schoolyard rinks, such rules do not apply. It's a first-come, first-serve oligarchy, where punctuality trumps all.

"Every noon hour we'd go out and get an hour in," Jarret Stoll said, recounting his days as a student at Saint Paul's school in Yorktown, Saskatchewan. "We'd race out there with our sticks, and try to get the good nets.

"There were two nets with the mesh, and two nets without the mesh, so we raced out there to try to get the good nets, and have a good game."

In those moments, a child is transformed into an NHL star. The grandiose visions of one day wearing the NHL crest and playing professional hockey take flight in the form of letting ones imagination run (or skate) freely.

Like many French-speaking Quebecers born right after Scotty Bowman's dynasty, Jason Pominville pictured himself wearing a Montreal Canadiens jersey as the cold air crimsoned his cheeks.

"I've always been a fan of Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, those guys were always players that I enjoyed watching," Pominville said. " You're a certain team, and a certain player, so it gets the games to be pretty interesting when you're a kid."

As a child, Pominville would play on outdoor rinks in Quebec. Though there wasn't much pond hockey, "pretty much every park has a rink that they do in the winter, so that's where I started playing after school, and just with friends," he said. 

Across a different kind of pond, Thomas Vanek was honing his craft on a lake in Austria where he grew up.

"Pretty much whenever we didn't have practice or something going on I was out there with my buddies, skating on the lake," Vanek said. "Like everything else, it doesn't matter if it's in the summer when you played street hockey, or in the winter you'd play outdoor hockey: most kids dream of putting on the jersey of an NHL guy, and pretending you're playing in a big game."

Back in North America, a young Ryan Carter and a group of boys from White Bear Lake skated for hours on backyard rinks, roughly 20 miles away from TCF Bank Stadium and the site of the 2016 Coors Light NHL™ Stadium Series.

"I'm a product of my neighborhood," Carter said. "Nobody in my family has every played before."

That could be in part why his hockey imagination skated in shorter strides.

"I'd pretend to be my high school idol at the time," Carter said. "This kid in our neighborhood played high school hockey, Giese was his last name, and he was a good player, and I'd always pretend I was him.

"To me, I thought he was so good when he was younger I thought, 'I want to be like that guy.'"

These are the Wild's four horsemen of the outdoors, the four roster players who have played in an outdoor, NHL sanctioned game.

With six outdoor games of experience between them, their knowledge may be called upon in the days leading up the Minnesota Wild's outdoor game against the Blackhawks.

There will be about 20 rookies to the NHL's outdoor product in the Wild's locker room, but when it comes to the nuances and tricks the foursome has discovered through their outdoor experiences, less is more in many respects.

"Have fun with it," Stoll said. "And also realize that it's a big game against a big, good team, and a good rival."

The Cold

In the 1950's, the Detroit Red Wings played the first NHL outdoor game — an exhibition — against the Marquette Prison Pirates, a team made up of inmates from Michigan's Marquette Prison Branch.

Almost 50 years later, the Edmonton Oilers and a 21-year-old Stoll played the Montreal Canadiens at Commonwealth Stadium in front of a crowd of 57,167 in the first Heritage Classic.

It was the first outdoor game in NHL history that awarded two points in the standings.

"That was cold," Stoll said.

Game time temperatures dropped to 18-below, with the wind chill touching 22-below.

"The benches were really warm; they had heaters on them," Stoll said. "If you got benched that game, it kind of wasn’t a big deal. For the guys that played a lot, it was cold."

Stoll had a goal and an assist and skated 14:20.

"As kids, we played in the kind of weather growing up, and you don't really even think about it," Stoll said. "You're just playing, and having fun."

Facing temperatures well below zero in that 2003 game in Alberta, Stoll and the Oilers got an assist from the NFL’s Green Bay Packers, who supplied the team with cold weather clothing for the frigid day.

Stoll's outdoor professional career would then take a decade-plus long hiatus, before, as a member of the Los Angeles Kings, he played at Dodger Stadium in 2014, and Levi's Stadium in 2015.

"At night too in California it gets a little chilly," Stoll said. "Not Minnesota chilly, but it cools down once the sun goes down. I think we started games at 8:00 and 8:30, so it was good. The weather wasn't a factor."

The Snow

While Stoll played in the first official outdoor NHL game, the one many fans associate as the NHL's first foray into the elements took place in Orchard Park, New York in 2008.

"There was a little bit of the unknown," Pominville said. "Obviously the weather, the temperature, and nobody really knew how nice the ice would be."

The NHL's first Winter Classic was played between the Buffalo Sabres and Pittsburgh Penguins on New Year's Day, 2008.

"For all of us it was new because we had never done it, so I don’t think we thought of the big scheme of things," Vanek said. "With Buffalo, it was pretty cool. It was the perfect weather with it snowing a little bit."

What followed was, in Pominville's words, "perfect for the NHL." With game time temperatures around 32 degrees, a snowy backdrop accompanied most of the game, which ended in a Sidney Crosby, shootout-winning goal.

"It sucked for us because we end up losing, but when you look back at it, it was an awesome show," Pominville said.

Played in front of 71,217 fans, the game was much quieter for the players, like most outdoor games.

"That was a part that was a lot different than what I expected," Pominville said. "To be honest, I didn't really know what to expect of it, but there's almost a delay of a second or so for the fans to start cheering."

Playing in a football stadium, with the rink situated in the middle of the field, the acoustics are drastically different than an NHL arena.

"You're not getting the roars and the cheers," Stoll said. "You're hearing the cheers, but it's from a distance."

In some respects, Vanek and Pominville were each observers that day, as curious and intrigued by the atmosphere as those in attendance, or watching on television.

"I remember driving to the rink really early, like earlier than I would normally go to the arena for a game," Pominville said. "Just the way it was set up in Buffalo, the parking lot was full of people already tailgating, bonfires, and people playing street hockey."

The moments leading up to the game also stick out for Vanek.

The Sun

Delays in hockey games are few and far between. Sometimes a pane of glass requires repair, and sometimes the ice needs quick maintenance.

Though there are no official records that catalogue the different delays and their lengths, it's safe to assume Carter experienced the first and only sun delay in the history of the NHL.

"I don't think I'd ever thought I'd be sitting in a locker room waiting for the sun to go down to play my game," Carter said. "Those are the stories you get to tell when you come away from a game like that: something a little different, and something a little exciting."

On a brisk Sunday afternoon in the Bronx, not even the hulking facades of Yankee Stadium were enough to keep the ice surface sufficiently shaded, causing a 40-minute delay from the scheduled start of the New Jersey Devils, New York Rangers 2014 Stadium Series™ Game.

Creatures of habit, adding a last-second, extra 40 minutes to a pregame presents many hurdles for an NHL player.

"It stunk sitting around there," Carter said. "'Should I eat something? Should I not. Should I do this? Should I not.' Managing anxiety is probably the hardest part."

Carter said it's still too early for his Wild teammates to pick his brain looking for outdoors tips, but he has an idea of what some of those questions might sound like.

"The glare, and the eye makeup, and what kind of clothes you wear — the NHL gives you quite a bit of clothes — and what felt good, what didn't feel good, what the benches were like, things like that," Carter said.

His outfit consisted of, "everything I usually wear," after Carter experimented with wearing a turtleneck during the Devils practice the day before, but thought it might be restricting.

He did wear eye black, a fitting accessory for a game delayed by the sun.

"I think they had stickers, and they had a little New Jersey Devil in there, so it was kind of cool," Carter said.

Did it make him look tough?

"I don't know; I hope so."

A Minnesota native, the Wild's outdoor game will bring everything full circle for Carter.

"For me what will be cool is, hockey is Minnesota's game," Carter said. "To get a chance to play in the first outdoor game for this league that's in the State of Hockey is pretty neat."

While Vanek and Stoll each were forecasting a warmer day ("I hope it will be in the 20's and a nice, sunny day," Vanek said), Carter had different thoughts.

Having just seen the Minnesota Vikings play in one of the coldest outdoor football games on record, Carter said to participate in a game remembered for its extreme temperature would create a special memory.

"I want to look back 50 years from now and say, 'I played in that game,'" Carter said, arching his back and pointing his finger, with a geriatric jingle to his voice.

This article appeared in the February issue of the Wild Magazine. For more information, including how to subscribe, click here.

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