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November 20, 2003 - Freeze frame: NHL players, coaches talk about playing outdoors
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Freeze frame: NHL players, coaches talk about playing outdoors

November 20, 2003

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  • FROZEN IN TIME: Memories of childhood games outdoors won't ever melt away
  • JASON WOOLLEY
    RED WINGS DEFENSEMAN

    Woolley played organized hockey outdoors as a kid in Toronto. It was cold, of course. "I don't know what was worse: the look on my face or my parents' face after watching me at 7 in the morning outside in the wintertime," he said. "You know it's bad when, even when you're 9 or 10, you're dreading the outside practice." Still, it was fun. "That's old-time hockey right there," he said.

    Woolley also played pond hockey at his grandparents' farm in northern Ontario. "That was the best," he said. "I'll tell you what: There's nothing like pond hockey in the winter." Pause. "You seen the movie 'Mystery, Alaska'? That's just awesome."

    MIKE BABCOCK
    MIGHTY DUCKS OF ANAHEIM COACH

    Babcock once played outdoors in St. Moritz, Switzerland. "It's just a beautiful part of the world," he said. "I remember having snowflakes coming down in your eyes when you're skating, getting the ice cleaned off once in a while during stoppages. . . . It was phenomenal."

    In his college days, Babcock once played outdoors with his buddies in Ottawa late at night -- on New Year's Eve.

    But Babcock has a picture in his office of a net on a pond in the prairies: Some of his fondest hockey memories are of playing outdoors in northern Manitoba. "We used to walk down a bank into a bottom of a combe behind my house, and there was the greatest beaver dam with the greatest little pond, and we had nets down there," he said. "I remember being out there all the time."

    One more memory: "We were supposed to play in the provincial finals," Babcock said, "and we got a hot streak there." The team wasn't hot; the weather was. "The rink melted," he said. "We had no finals."

    MIKE MODANO
    DALLAS STARS CENTER

    Modano, the Stars' captain, played pond hockey growing up in Westland. But he didn't play organized hockey outdoors until he made the NHL. The Minnesota North Stars had what Modano called "an outdoor thing in a park" maybe twice a year. Did he like it? "Not really," he said. "Twenty below, you know?"

    DAVE TIPPETT
    DALLAS STARS COACH

    Playing outdoors might be an event now, but when Tippett was growing up in Saskatchewan, playing indoors was an event. Ice time was limited indoors, because there were so few arenas and so many kids. Tippett said he probably spent at least five days a week outside. "The two days you got inside," he said, "it was a real blessing."

    BRETT HULL
    RED WINGS FORWARD

    Hull was 8 when his father, Bobby, left Chicago for Manitoba to play for the Jets in the World Hockey Association. "The first time I was outside that I can remember in Winnipeg it was so (bleeping) cold I (bleeping) cried forever because my feet were so frozen," he said. "It's not so much when they get cold, it's when they start to thaw back out. It's the worst feeling on earth."

    Hull, one of the game's greatest players, didn't enjoy playing the game in perhaps its purest form? "No," he said. "I hated it. Looking back, it was good. But at the time, I hated it."

    KIRK MALTBY AND KRIS DRAPER
    RED WINGS FORWARDS

    Maltby lived four doors down from a big park in his hometown of Hespeler, Ontario. "H-E-S-P-E-L-E-R," Maltby said with a smile. "Home of Paul Woods." When winter came, fire trucks would come and flood at least two of the four baseball diamonds. "So you'd have a couple of rinks to work off of right there," Maltby said. "There were always lots of kids around my neighborhood, so we never had a problem finding kids to play, especially on the weekends."

    "Same thing as Malts," said Draper, who grew up in Toronto. "We walked up the street, and every year they froze the baseball diamonds."

    But Draper had another outdoor experience: At 18, he went to a tournament in Moscow with Team Canada. There was a main rink, and there was a practice rink connected to it. But ice wasn't always available. "(Coach) Dave King wanted to go outside to practice, so we practiced outside," Draper said. "We had three or four practices in December in Russia." Draper laughed. "It was cold, and it was snowy. You weren't out there for very long. We were probably on the ice for maybe 20 minutes, because it was that cold. But you kind of had fun with it. It was pretty cool. Not only were you in a foreign country, but you were doing the outdoor thing that you really only remembered doing when you were a kid."

    BRENDAN SHANAHAN
    RED WINGS FORWARD

    It might be the Czech Republic now. Or maybe Slovakia. He can't recall. But it doesn't really matter, because it was all Czechoslovakia then, and it's the name of the town that stuck in his mind, anyway. Bulpoos. That's where Shanahan had his most unique hockey experience. "B-U-L-P-O-O-S," Shanahan said, remembering the spelling from the sign at the rink.

    Shanahan was 17, playing an exhibition for Team Canada before the world juniors. "This little town took a lot of pride in this," he said. "It wasn't just a crappy little outdoor rink. There were nice seats. Beautiful dressing room. You had to walk, though." Yes, it was cold. "We all had turtlenecks on," Shanahan said. "They had towels for us to put around our necks to keep us warm. A couple guys wore gloves under their gloves. . . . Instead of water on the bench, we had hot tea."

    TOMAS HOLMSTROM
    RED WINGS FORWARD

    Holmstrom grew up in Pieta, a town in northern Sweden. "When water was flowing in the creeks and there was ice on both sides, we'd flip passes to each other over the creeks," he said. "A little bit dangerous, of course."

    But Holmstrom didn't skate on lakes and rivers much, even though the town had only one indoor rink and he said "it was for the bigger guys, the older guys." His dad, Henrik, worked for a lumber company and gathered all the wood and neighbors he could and built a rink across the street. It had boards. It even had lights -- only two or three hours of sunlight in the winter up there -- and a heated locker room, too. "I was out skating every day up until I was 12 or 13," Holmstrom said. "Before practice, we went out there, and after practice, we went out there again."

    Holmstrom smiled. "When you have a blue sky and it's minus-2 Celsius and you're playing outside," he said, "it's the best thing in the world."

    TYLER ARNASON
    CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS FORWARD

    Arnason practiced outside when he was 6 or 7. "In Winnipeg . . . well, it's pretty cold up there," he said. "I remember coming in and getting hot chocolate, parents rubbing your feet, trying to make you feel better. It was good." Did he like outdoor hockey? "I didn't really know any better," he said. "I liked playing hockey, I knew that. But I think I would have rather been inside, to tell you the truth."

    JIRI FISCHER
    RED WINGS DEFENSEMAN

    The Canadiens and Oilers are going to play outdoors on Saturday? "I just wish for them it's not going to be a snowy day," Fischer said.

    Fischer remembers a lot about playing outdoors as a kid in the Czech Republic. If you had a Plexiglas facemask, your breath would frost it all up. If you had a cage, you wouldn't have the frost problem, but the cold wind would be in your face. One more thing: "The non-fun part is that you had three pairs of socks, and your feet are still freezing," Fischer said. "Your toes are just dying."

    But Fischer's fondest -- and funniest -- memory is of a game in third grade. It was snowing so badly that every five minutes or so, parents and players alike had to grab shovels and clear off the ice. "Toward the end of the game, they just didn't want to take any extra 10 or 15 minutes to get the snow off," Fischer said. "So we just played." The snow piled higher than the puck. "You would have to just shove it in front of you and hopefully try to shoot it somewhere," Fischer said. "The only way you knew where the puck was going was by following the trail it left."

    MANNY LEGACE
    RED WINGS GOALTENDER

    "It's when hockey was the best," said Legace, who grew up in Toronto. "You looked forward to it every day. Outside with just your buddies. Throw the sticks in the middle. Pick the teams. Just play and have fun. The competitiveness didn't come on until about the third or fourth hour -- or until 'last goal wins.' It wouldn't matter if you were up 10-0 or down 10-0. You score the last goal, you win. . . .

    "There were three rinks around us. I'd just walk over after school, or my parents would drop me off on Saturday morning and pick me up at 5 o'clock. I'd be there for five or six hours just playing. They'd give me $5 for lunch. I'd run to McDonald's and back."

    Legace wasn't a goaltender in those games. No goalies in shinny, thank goodness. "It's fun to score once in a while," he said.

    DAVE LEWIS
    RED WINGS COACH

    Lewis lived 2 1/2 blocks from the outdoor rink in Kindersley, Saskatchewan. His school was right next door to it. "It seemed like we just lived on the rink," he said. "At one end, it could be hockey. Other end, girls could be figure skating. You'd lose pucks in the snowbanks, so you made sure you had a couple of pucks. . . . I remember as a kid -- a wee, little guy -- we'd play Saturday mornings at the outdoor arena. And then you finally got to an age where they'd let you play indoors."

    Did Lewis, who now collects pictures of outdoor hockey scenes, feel the cold playing outside? "No. They had a little shack, and all it was was four benches with a potbelly stove in it. And that's where you put your skates on and hung your jacket. . . . The one thing I remember, they used to shut the lights off when it got 20 below zero (Fahrenheit). The kids couldn't play anymore. That was the cutoff. Twenty below."

    KEN HOLLAND
    RED WINGS GM

    Sure, Holland has memories of playing outdoors. He grew up in Vernon, British Columbia. His best friend, Danny Brown, had a rink at his house, and he was on it almost every day after school until it got late and his mother told him it was time to come home.

    But Holland's best outdoor hockey story is about watching a game in Russia in the early 1990s.

    One of the Wings' scouts wanted him to see a certain player, so they drove three hours from Moscow to a small town. The game was supposed to be at noon, but when they got there at about 11 o'clock, the parking lot was empty. Eight inches of snow; no tire tracks. "I thought we were in the wrong place," Holland said. But there was a sign on the door that said, "Game at noon today," so they opened the door and went in. They found the player and met him. They grabbed a bite to eat. Noon rolled around. "I assumed I was going to go into a covered rink," Holland said, "and we walked out through this door -- and we were outside."

    There was a sheet of ice. On one side, there were cement steps for stands. On the other, snow was stacked about 10- or 12-feet high. There were maybe 700, 800 or 900 people there. "Both teams lined up on the blue line," Holland said. "They had the anthem, and then they got ready to drop the puck. The referee forgot the puck. There was a bit of confusion as they were searching for a puck. They found a puck. They dropped the puck. First shift of the game, a guy came around behind the net and shot the puck over the boards into the bank of snow. So now there was more confusion. Finally one of the players had to hop over the boards and dig around in the snow. He found the puck. As the night wore on, every time the puck went into the bank over there, someone went over the boards. And this was a professional league. . . . I thought it was the 1930s. It was unbelievable."

    And how was the player? "He wasn't very good that night, I don't think," Holland said. "We didn't draft him."