ST. LOUIS — Monday will see the St. Louis Blues host their first-ever outdoor NHL game. They’ll face the Chicago Blackhawks for the 19th time since the start of 2016.
One of the most interesting notes about outdoor hockey during Sunday’s practice day — a day full of players reminiscing about their history on outdoor sheets — was the revelation that Blues coach Ken Hitchcock has previously coached an outdoor game.
He dropped the anecdote casually during Sunday’s press conference. “I’ve coached outdoor games before,” he said. “Some against inmates that were a lot scarier than the one is going to be tomorrow. Really scary, as a matter of fact. We were afraid to score a goal.”
He left the story to sit there until pressed to explain further.
“I had this bright idea,” he continued. “We were going to give back to the community. We were in Prince Albert, where [Blues assistant coach] Rick Wilson is from. So I organized a game against the inmates at the security prison. They were playing for real and we were trying to play for fun.
“It was neat though, because the snow was on top of the boards and they were all lined up on top of the snow and it looked a little bit like the Colosseum in Rome.
“It was an interesting way of playing because it was 20 below. The way we played was one group of five on the ice, one on the bench and the other in the [warming] shack. You went from the ice to the shack and it was a neat way of playing. It ended up being a lot of fun, but it wasn’t one of my brightest ideas.”
After Saturday’s Winter Classic Alumni Game, Wayne Gretzky was asked to talk about the success Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews have had in Chicago. “I think that both of them are obviously superstars,” he said. “Both of them are Hall of Famers. I don’t think there’s any debate over that.”
Kane was told about that quote Sunday. “I didn’t know that,” he said. “Well, I guess, hearing that, that’s pretty special. You know, actually, I scored my 700th point the other night and some of the text messages I got were like ‘2,100 more points to catch Gretzky.’ That kind of speaks volumes to how good of a player he was.”
Asked for some insight into what was surprising about getting out on the ice for the first time Sunday, Hitchcock focused on a detail that had little to do with the actual game.
“The first thing I thought is the dugout is really a dugout,” he said. “I was shocked by how low the dugout is. I thought it was close to the field level, but you could really hide in that dugout. That’s the thing that shocked me. How do you see a baseball game?”
— St. Louis Blues (@StLouisBlues) January 2, 2017
I asked Chicago’s Ryan Hartman if any of the older players had given him any advice on playing on a big stage like the Winter Classic. “Don’t look directly into the sun,” he said.
— Ryan Hartman (@RHartzy18) January 2, 2017
Linemate Vinnie Hinostroza got some different advice. “Just soak it all in. It’s about the experience and it’s about the game,” he said. “Just being here and experiencing all this is really cool. It’s something I’ll never forget.”
Most players addressed the Winter Classic as being just another game. But Chicago defenseman Michal Rozsival refreshingly honest take on the excitement of playing in one of the league’s outdoor spectacles. “I think [the excitement] is starting to [trickle down] to the team. You can feel the vibe around the game,” he said. “Even after practice, it was high than before. It’s still going to escalate as we get close to the game tomorrow.
“The excitement is there. You can feel it. You can feel it in the room from the players and the coaches and everybody in the locker room and around the rink.
“I’ve played some games outdoor before. I try to approach it as just another game, but it is totally different, right? The ice is different. The wind is blowing in your face, slowing you down. Sometimes you feel like you’re carrying another body on your back. It’s a little different.”