Tuesday, January 12, 2010

More Hockey: Playing and Watching the Game Outdoors

BROOKLYN, New York -- Hockey was meant to be played – and watched – outdoors. On New Year's Day, the National Hockey League pulled off another spectacular Winter Classic, an outdoor game between the Boston Bruins and the Philadelphia Flyers at historic Fenway Park. I was not able to make it to Boston for those festivities, but this past weekend I did make the trip to Beantown to see college hockey rivals Boston University and Boston College face off at Frozen Fenway.

It seemed a bit sacrilegious that my first visit to Fenway would be to see a hockey game – a lifelong Red Sox fan, I've never seen them in their home ballpark – but you could not ask for a better atmosphere for a hockey game. As my brother and I shivered through three periods, and temperatures dropped to 15F, we did not complain that we had to watch the game through binoculars from the bleachers, or that the public address announcer kept talking during play. That's acceptable in baseball, but not okay in hockey – once the puck drops, the PA, organ, and infernal jock jams must all cease so that the crowd can hear the swish of the skates and the crack of the puck off of stick blades and boards. Our sightlines were not great, but they did a great job micing the ice; and I'm fine with an obstructed view seat, if that view is partially blocked by the Pesky Pole.

The trip to Fenway brought back memories of places both very near to and very far from my home. Playing shinny on local ponds was a big part of growing up, and quite a few of the rinks I played on in youth hockey in Connecticut were outdoors. But this was the first time I had been to an outdoor hockey game since I lived in Russia. While in Irkutsk, I was a rabid follower of our local bandy club (not exactly hockey, but close), Baikal-Energia. 15,000 fans braved temperatures that dipped well below freezing – at their most recent home game, against Stroitel Syktyvkar, the official game time temperature was -13F – on a regular basis. I guess I have grown soft and used to the warmth and comfort of an NHL arena; so had most of my fellow spectators in Boston, as the crowd had thinned out significantly by the third period. What we all needed was a few belts of honey pepper vodka and some slices of salo, a type of Ukrainian salted pork fat. Neither was on offer at the concession stands, however; just beer, which promptly froze in the plastic cups.

Unlike previous Winter Classic events, the NHL decided to leave the ice down in Fenway for a full month, making it accessible for public skating and youth, high school, and college hockey. That is, for those who could afford it – two hours of ice time cost high schools upwards of $20,000, meaning only wealthy private schools could have the privilege of staging a game there. Nonetheless, the rink's extended stay was a big success, and the league hopes the next host of the event will make similar accommodations. Connecticut hockey fans had a lot to cheer about; not only did Avon Old Farms and Taft square off on the Fenway ice on December 21, but the honorary captains for the BC-BU game included two of the state's greatest players: former Eagles standouts and NHL stars Craig Janney (of Enfield) and Brian Leetch (Cheshire).

Outdoor hockey used to be ubiquitous, and even though leagues are staging more and more outdoor games, fewer and fewer kids are growing up playing on natural ice. I was lucky to play a few games last year at an outdoor rink in Nederland, Colorado, located at 8,500 feet amidst beautiful mountain scenery, but few have such a privilege. Interestingly, no Stanley Cup final has ever been held outdoors. Even in the early days of the trophy, when the Amateur Hockey Association of Canada battled for the title, all the deciding games were held inside. When the Montreal Hockey Club won it for the first time in 1894, they played at Victoria Rink, which opened in 1862. Even when the cup was contested in far-off Winnipeg in 1896, the city hosted the games in the recently-constructed, 2,000-seat Granite Rink. The Vancouver Olympics are fast approaching, where the hockey tournament will be staged at the Canucks' home, GM Place. When the Games were held in Cortina d'Amprezzo in 1956, all the on-ice events were held at the open-air Stadio Olympica (which has since been covered), including the Soviets' gold medal game victory over the United States (Canada finished with the bronze, though their goaltender was Denis Brodeur, father of the team's current backstop, Martin).

As for the game we watched outside, the Terriers dominated most of the way. A late rally drew the Eagles within a goal, but they came up short, and BU earned some bragging rights with a 3-2 victory. Let's hope this great tradition continues, and more fans and players get to experience the game out in the open.

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