The hardest thing to get used to playing hockey outdoors is unpredictable ice, says Colorado Avalanche winger Ryan Smyth.
Smyth skated in the first outdoors NHL game – a 4-3 victory by the Montreal Canadiens over his former team, the Edmonton Oilers, on Nov. 22, 2003, at Commonwealth Stadium.
“It was so cold, the ice would chip away,” Smyth recalls. “Chunks of ice would come out.
“A couple of times they had to patch it up along the boards. And the ruts were deeper. But guys adapted. And it was the same for both teams.”
That game was played in minus-20 C weather, with a wind, and made for a bone-chilling night for the players and the 57,167 parka-clad fans.
Gentler weather is predicted for the so-called AMP Energy NHL Winter Classic on New Year’s Day between the host Buffalo Sabres and the Pittsburgh Penguins at 70,000-seat Ralph Wilson Stadium.
The big fear is rain that could turn the ice to mush, although the forecast is for a high of 0 C with a 40 per cent chance of snow. The league can postpone the game until Jan. 2 if the weather is bad.
Either way, it will call for extraordinary measures to deal with factors that NHL teams don’t normally face in their temperature controlled arenas.
Smyth said the Oilers’ trainers picked the brains of Commonwealth Stadium’s main tenant, the Eskimos of the Canadian Football League, for tips on playing outdoors.
“We had balaclavas on our heads to protect our ears and stuff,” Smyth recalled. “We used some of their stuff.”
A lasting image of the game is Montreal goalie Jose Theodore wearing a Canadiens tuque on top of his mask. Theodore and Smyth are teammates in Colorado now.
Between the ice and the extra clothing, basics such as skating, passing and handling the puck are all a litle tougher, said Smyth.
“Both teams play in it and it’s a matter of adjusting to it as quickly as possible,” he said. “Passes are a lot tougher. You have to keep it simple.”
In Edmonton, the players benches were heated, which provided relief from the cold but created a problem.
“It was so hot on our bench, you couldn’t acclimatize,” said Smyth. “You’d go from really cold to really hot.”
Smyth wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
“I’m glad it was that cold,” he said. “That’s Canadian hockey.
“When you’re growing up, you’re at school and you go out and say, ‘Let’s play.’ To do that in a pro game was amazing. It was special, and it’s nice to see them try it again.”