Hockey Returns to the Great Outdoors

Pinpointing the time and place of the very first hockey game is about as easy as skating in mud but this much is certain; it was played outdoors on natural ice.

No Zamboni; no pipes crisscrossing under the arena floor; nothing but fresh air — preferably very cold — and a feeling of exuberance among all the stickhandlers.

That, hopefully, will be the case New Year’s Day when the Rangers encounter the Sabres at Citi Field on Monday afternoon for the 10th NHL Winter Classic.

What’s so special about NHL hockey in the Great Outdoors? Rangers legend Adam Graves offers an explanation:

“In 1991, I played in an outdoor exhibition at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas,” Graves recalled. “I loved it and only wish that the NHL had started this tradition during my playing days. It brings the big-leaguers back to the feeling they got when they were kids while it also captures the imagination of the fans.”

It’s hard to believe but the first-ever outdoor game between two NHL clubs was actually held on the Las Vegas strip! Take a peek at what went down when the Rangers took on the LA Kings in an exhibition game in front of Caesars Palace in September of 1991.

In a sense, basic training for this year’s Queens’ Classic took place for the Rangers on Central Park’s Lasker Rink in Harlem on Dec. 2.

Coach Alain Vigneault put his Blueshirts through a brisk practice that invigorated his players more accustomed to skating in the club’s Westchester facility in Greenburgh, New York.

For many of the Blueshirts — especially captain Ryan McDonagh — the breezes blowing over Flushing Meadows will be a throwback to their pond hockey youth.

“This brings back memories of when I was outside skating [in St. Paul, Minnesota] with my family, we’d put on the skates and be out there for hours,” said McDonagh.

“It was also good for goalies, or some of the guys who have not played in an outdoor game to get to play outside in Central Park and get a taste of the sun in your eyes, the glare, all that stuff that we’ll face as Citi Field,”

Speaking of goalies, skating outdoors in a big stadium is nothing new for Henrik Lundqvist. He was in goal for both Ranger games at Yankee Stadium when the Seventh Avenue skaters beat both the Devils (7-3) and Islanders (2-1) in successive efforts. In three outdoor contests, Lundqvist possesses a .925 save percentage to go with a perfect 3-0 record.

For pure New York City realism, the Rangers’ outdoor practice in Northern Central Park was preceded for some by a subway ride to the rink — a trio — Jimmy Vesey, Brady Skjei, and Kevin Hayes — in their playing gear, minus skates.

“We got off the subway in full hockey gear, and, yeah, there were some looks, but the fans were excited to see us. It was just like being out there with my dad and brother growing up,” said Hayes.

Nobody could have imagined how popular NHL outdoor games would be when the inaugural event was held in Edmonton on Nov. 22, 2003, between the Oilers and Montreal Canadiens.

“The best word to describe the feeling a hockey player gets when he plays outdoors is ‘passion,” explained Blueshirts 1994 Stanley Cup-winning goalie Mike Richter. “When I was a kid I couldn’t wait to get on the ice outside and play. The NHL has created an event where the energy and feeling are [the same] as we had in [our] childhood.”

The first Heritage Classic played in exceptionally frigid weather filled Commonwealth Stadium, encouraging the NHL to try an encore.

It took Bettman, Inc. five years before it developed the first official Winter Classic. The venue was Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo and pitted the Sabres against Sidney Crosby and his Pittsburgh Penguins.

Enhanced by a light snowfall, the melodramatic game was capped by a shootout winner delivered by Captain Crosby, himself.

The crowd of 71,217 reacted so enthusiastically the NHL was inspired to turn the classic into an annual event.

Ex-Ranger, Sabre and Islander Pat LaFontaine has a vivid recollection of the first Classic played in Buffalo during a snowfall.

“With the snow coming down,” Patty concluded, “and Crosby scoring the shootout winner, it was mesmerizing.”

Let’s hope that this latest version of the Winter Classic matches that and, maybe, even be better!