CHICAGO – The Pittsburgh Penguins were wrapping up practice Friday when Tanner Glass grabbed an iPad mini and skated around the temporary rink in the middle of Soldier Field.
The 30-year-old Canadian forward smiled as he captured the chilly scene, which took him all the way back to when he first learned to skate at his grandparents’ farm.
“As I grew up, there was an outdoor rink right beside by the main rink,” said Glass, a native of Regina, Saskatchewan. “So even tournaments, we’d have our real game inside and then we’d all just take half our gear off and run across to the outdoor rink and play all day. It reminds me of that and kind of the good old days.”
Yup, these outdoor games still have an allure for NHL players, especially when they involve two of the best teams in the league.
The NHL gets a marquee prime-time finish for its successful Stadium Series when Sidney Crosby and the Penguins take on Jonathan Toews and the Chicago Blackhawks on Saturday night at the home of the NFL’s Chicago Bears.
“We’ll be ready for this game. We don’t see this team too much,” Toews said. “But it’ll be a good matchup for us. Try and enjoy the moment as much as we can, but find a way to win a game. That’s the best way to do it.”
The forecast calls for light snow and temperatures in the teens, but each team has some experience with the pratfalls of playing outside.
Chicago lost 6-4 to rival Detroit in the 2009 Winter Classic at Wrigley Field. Crosby had the winning shootout goal when visiting Pittsburgh beat Buffalo 2-1 in the first Winter Classic in 2008, but the Penguins lost 3-1 to Washington when they hosted the 2011 game at Heinz Field.
Now the Blackhawks and Penguins return to the great outdoors for their first meeting since Pittsburgh’s 3-2 victory on Dec. 20, 2011. It’s their first game in Chicago since Patrick Kane had the only shootout goal in the Blackhawks’ 3-2 win on Feb. 20 of that year.
“I think it’s a great matchup to have for this kind of game, probably,” Kane said. “Two teams that a lot of fans want to watch on TV and when you mix it in with a stadium series-type of game like this, I think it makes it even more entertaining.”
While scheduling and the league’s most recent labour dispute have kept the teams apart, the players are plenty familiar with one another.
Team captains Crosby and Toews face off for the first time in an NHL regular-season game after leading Canada to the gold medal in the Sochi Olympics last weekend. Crosby, Toews and Penguins forward Chris Kunitz scored in their country’s 3-0 victory in the final against Sweden, which included Marcus Kruger, Johnny Oduya and Niklas Hjalmarsson of the Blackhawks.
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma got a chance to see Kane up close when he was behind the U.S. bench in Russia.
“I’ve learned quite a bit about his competitiveness,” Bylsma said. “You kind of see the smile. It’s certainly a ton of skill how he plays the game, but I was impressed by it and learned just the competitiveness that he has and brings to the game. Skill-wise you see it live.”
The first NHL game at Soldier Field also features two teams in need of a win. The Penguins are coming off a 6-5 shootout loss to Montreal, while the Blackhawks lost 2-1 at the New York Rangers on Thursday night.
Chicago, which almost tied the game against the Rangers in the final seconds, is playing its first game in the Windy City since Jan. 26.
“You’ve got two pretty fast, skilled hockey teams and if the ice can kind of agree with everyone I think that would make for a pretty good product out there,” Crosby said.
Jay Cohen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jcohenap