The New York Rangers defeated the Philadelphia Flyers today 3-2 in the fifth annual Winter Classic, but I’m not going to give a recap or even my thoughts on the game played today. Instead I’m taking a trip down memory lane, reminiscing about where the Winter Classic takes me each year.
I look forward to the outdoor games because it brings me back to my youth in central New York, where I was raised on pond hockey. Of course, the Winter Classic is nothing like the shinny games we participated in, but no matter how/where it’s played there truly is nothing more amazing than the best sport in the world on the stage of the great outdoors.
We had an outdoor rink right down the road from our house where I learned to skate as soon as I could walk. Of course my mom had me in figure skates at the time, but it didn’t take long for me to ask for my first hockey skates. Trips to the rink were some of my favourite times; wonderful family outings that always included thermoses full of hot chocolate and were followed by all of us cuddling up under blankets in front of the fireplace to thaw out when we returned home.
We moved as I got a little older and were no longer close to an outdoor rink so that’s when we learned to make our own. Our favourite place to play was the pond on my friend’s farm. We’d bundle up early morning, set out to shovel off the surface, and would not head back in until it was too dark to see the puck. We had no zambonis, no boards, no benches, no referees. It was hockey at it’s purest – just kids with their sticks and pucks. It was frozen toes and frozen noses. It was hair flowing in the wind out from the bottom of our toques. It was peaceful and frantic at the same time; quiet save for the the sound of skates cutting into the ice and the occasional chirp between friends. We often had to stop games to shovel off more snow that had accumulated throughout the day or to chase off a stray cow that was brave enough to venture onto our playing surface. Those were just minor distractions though as nothing would keep us from playing the game we loved.
I get chills when I think about what playing in a game like the Winter Classic must mean to the NHLers that are lucky enough to be a part of it. Even though there were two points on the line, I can only imagine they felt like kids again as they hit the ice for the first time today. All the cheers they dreamt of while flying around the pond 10-15 years ago became a reality on the outdoor rink today. The countless hours they braved sub-zero temperatures and the threat of frostbite paid off as they were brought back to their roots on the grandest outdoor stage imaginable.
Anyone who has ever played hockey outdoors understands where I’m coming from. Even though my friends and I knew we’d never hear the big cheers for us, we imagined them nonetheless. Nothing could keep us off the ice and nothing could dampen our desire for the greatest game on earth. Pond hockey was more than a way to pass time in the long, cold winters; more than a chance to hone our skating or puckhandling skills; and so much more than just a fun time with friends.
Pond hockey simply put was our religion.