When Sidney Crosby scored the shoot out winner in the first ever Winter Classic it ended a game and launched a new era in the sport. The NHL now hosts the Winter Classic every year on New Years Day. A great event for television and for the host city. They have also launched the Stadium Series, a spinoff where other teams will be able to play outdoors, although under lesser fanfare. College Hockey has attempted to join in on the fun, with Frozen Fenway being a regular event, and Games being played recently at Comerica Park and Soldier Field, among others.
The question lingers: is it too much? Have outdoor games become watered down?
My answer: it depends on your perspective.
As a Frozen Fenway participant myself (UMass in ’11), I believe that the experience is something beyond your wildest dreams, regardless of television or attendance. Most hockey players I know have played on a pond at one point in their lives. You rig up some nets, find a puck and as many of your friends that know how to skate and play until the sun goes down. No boards, no refs, no clock. Just hockey.
As we move on in the game, the structure, rules and coaching have a greater impact on how we understand “hockey”. Playing an outdoor game is an opportunity to mix the hockey we grew up playing with the structured sport we play now. It’s a chance to get back to your roots as a player and just enjoy playing the game.
Kids imagine themselves scoring the game winner in Game 7 when they’re out on the pond. We not ever imagined that we would be playing hockey in a place like Fenway Park. The chance to do something of that magnitude in that kind of environment is a memory that will last a lifetime. Win or lose, the chance to practice and play with the stadium and the city around you is an absolutely amazing experience. Green Monster to your left, Peskys Pole to your right, the pitching mound between you and the locker room. Getting dressed in stalls used by Papi, Pedro, and any number of visiting All-Stars. Eye Black, Toques, and the environment – wind, setting sun, breathing steam,
Does the crowd matter? It is noticeable on the ice, but you can’t tell if there’s 33,000 or 37,000 people in the stands. You don’t pay attention to those things as a competitor. I spoke with some coaches this week that have been at Fenway with less than 10,000 and they all loved the experience. Outdoor games are unforgettable for those most intimately involved in the game. The “student-athlete experience” is second to none.
So again, are outdoor games losing their luster? I think not. At its roots, hockey is a game that is meant to be fun for all involved – it’s easy to get too wrapped up in the seriousness of it. Outdoor games bring us back to the roots. Playing hockey is about achieving dreams and making memories that will last a lifetime. There are few memories greater than playing outdoors, under the lights, in an official game, in a world-famous stadium. It’s something that the players involved will cherish for the rest of their lives.