BOSTON – With Red Sox reliever Hideki Okajima playing catch in the outfield and a bright blue summer sky hovering over Fenway Park, Boston Bruins defenceman Aaron Ward stood on the infield of the major leagues’ oldest ballpark and pretended to be miffed.
“That’s how they got me down here,” he said. “They told me I was taking batting practice.”
The NHL announced on Wednesday that the Bruins will play the Philadelphia Flyers at Fenway on New Year’s Day in the annual Winter Classic, an outdoor game that has become one of the league’s signature traditions since it began in 2008.
Unlike previous years, when the annual outdoor game was played at Buffalo’s Ralph Wilson Stadium and Chicago’s Wrigley Field, this season’s NHL matchup will be part of a festival that will include public skating and a college hockey game.
Organizers are still working on bringing Hockey East rivals Boston College and defending NCAA champion Boston University to Fenway in the days after the Winter Classic, according to a person involved in the negotiations who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the deal was not final.
“Boston is a perfect fit for the Classic,” mayor Tom Menino said, adding that the public skating will “give families and children a chance to experience the ice just like their favourite players.”
Judging from the reaction of the Bruins and Flyers who attended the announcement, it will be a thrill for them as well. The players marvelled at the field around them, posed for pictures at home plate and in front of the Green Monster and even went inside the manual scoreboard built into the famous left-field wall.
“We’re lucky we have boards here, because back home we played outside and instead of boards we’d have bales of straw and hay to keep the puck from going too far off the ice,” said Flyers defenceman Braydon Coburn, who grew up playing on lakes and ponds in Saskatchewan. “This is going to be just great, especially with the scenery with the Green Monster right behind us and playing at Fenway. Playing the Boston Bruins, one of our rivals, is going to be real special.”
Ward, an admitted washout as a childhood baseball player, said he couldn’t imagine how else he would be able to stand on the field.
“I’ve been everywhere on the outskirts of this building,” he said. “If you’re from Boston, you know the weight the Red Sox have and the weight Fenway Park has.”
Flyers backup goalie Brian Boucher, a native of Woonsocket, R.I., grew up as a Red Sox fan and has tickets to see them play later this month. “That makes it even more special,” he said.
Hall of Famer Cam Neely, who retired from the Bruins in 1996 and now works in the front office, remembered playing outdoors in Moose Jaw, Sask., and wished the NHL had played an outdoor game in his days.
“I don’t think there’s a player today or past that wouldn’t have loved to play in this game,” he said.
The 2008 game in the home of the NFL’s Buffalo Bills had a dusting of snow that looked great on TV but made it difficult at times to skate. When the game was played on the Chicago Cubs’ diamond last year, the ice was improved and the field was laid out across the diamond, from first to third, with the faceoff circle right around second base.
A similar layout was on display with temporary fencing on Wednesday, though the league said other configurations were still being considered.
As for the weather, everyone knows not to make any plans.
“If you are a New Englander, you have to be prepared for anything,” Ward said. “Ask me the day of (the game) and I’ll tell you how I feel about playing outdoors.”