Outdoor Hockey: A Romantic Game

Alex Lyon | Lehigh Valley Phantom, Philadelphia Flyer Prospect

The hockey community often likes to describe the game with words like tough, gritty, or scrappy.  These are admirable qualities and are certainly true in some regard, but in contrast to its more formalized brother, I believe outdoor hockey needs to be described differently. Outdoor hockey is largely free from rules and regulations, with a greater likelihood of creating those priceless moments with friends and family. To me, it’s nothing short of romantic.

For the common fan, mentions of outdoor hockey may call on memories of The Winter Classic, an NHL game held outdoors every year in an MLB ballpark.  Moments that come to mind are when a young man, affectionately know as “Sid the Kid” at the time, scored a five-hole shootout winner against Buffalo in 2008.  It was snowing, Ryan Miller (Buffalo’s goalie) was wearing a stocking hat over his helmet, and the city of Buffalo was buzzing with excitement over holding the first ever Winter Classic.  Parents might be reminded of the endless hours of labor endured to provide their child with a tiny ice surface in their backyard made out of plywood, nails, and elbow grease.  Most players, when watching the game, might reminisce of wind burnt faces, shoveling the ice during intermissions of their best of seven shinny series, or taking off their skates as fast possible because everyone knows mom boiled enough hot dogs to feed a small army. 

When I watch The Winter Classic, I am lucky enough to remember playing a game for Lake of the Woods High School on Baudette Bay in Minnesota. We won 5-1, but I honestly don’t remember too much of the game itself.  That day brings many different things to mind, but nothing to do with how well (or poorly) I may have played.  I remember the wind chill, which someday will inevitably be -50 degrees, but in reality reduced the temperature from a balmy 0°F to nearly -20°F. I remember skating from my net to the penalty box where two of my closest friends were standing and drinking their hot chocolate during intermission.  I remember, vividly, the five football players who stood in the front row of the fairground style bleachers for the ENTIRE game, shirtless, with “BEARS” written on their chests in giant maroon and gold lettering, each adorning their own letter.  When asked today, after multiple Ivy League Championships and my professional debut, playing that game on Baudette Bay in front of my friends, family, town, and those 5 dedicated morons still contends for my favorite hockey memory.

If you ask any hockey player, at almost any age level, they have beautiful memories of the game through the perspective of outdoor hockey.  As a ten-year-old, playing outdoor hockey on a lake or in a backyard was simply a way for me to log as much ice-time as I could.  As a 24-year-old professional, these memories remind me of this beautiful game and why I fell in love with it in the first place.  It is my hope that everyone in the hockey community is able to experience the game in this form at least one time in their lives.  That way, when you watch The Winter Classic this year and see Sid the Kid’s face light up, you’ll be able to relate, to understand what he’s feeling. He’s not smiling because he’s in the NHL, or in a stadium full of people, he’s smiling because he’s playing the game in its purest form. 

Thanks,

Alex

Mitch Witek