ST CATHERINES (CUP)—The stage once reserved for little more than pickup games of shinny has definitely shown its value over the past decade, now permeating multiple levels of organized hockey.
The NHL’s Winter Classic has become a New Year’s Day staple since being embraced in the 2007-08 season (after the initial success of the Canadian Heritage Classic in Edmonton in 2003). In 2010, the American Hockey League embraced the outdoor format, which ultimately set the path for this year’s partnership with the Ontario University Athletic Association (OUA) to hold both an outdoor men’s and women’s regular season game.
This year’s festivities were hosted at Ivor Wynne Stadium in Hamilton, Ontario, home of the Canadian Football League’s Hamilton Tigercats. The featured game was between the Hamilton Bulldogs and Toronto Marlies on January 21, dubbed “The Steeltown Showdown,” which drew a record 20,565 fans. The showcase also featured a Toronto Maple Leafs-Montréal Canadiens alumni game, and open ice sessions for the public.
Attendance for the OUA games was a fraction of the AHL showcase, but made for a unique experience and cherished memories for Brock, Waterloo and University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) hockey players.
“The event marked the first time in 70 years that an OUA team played outdoors,” said Robert Hilson, athletic director at Brock University. “In 20 years, our student athletes might not remember their 2011–12 record, or the score of the game, but they will always remember playing these games outdoors.”
Hilson explained it was somewhat a combination of initiative and luck that allowed for Brock’s participation in both the games.
“Ontario University Athletics approached the Brock men’s hockey team to play Waterloo on Sunday [January 22]. There were only two OUA games scheduled on that week, and the other game was in Ottawa.
“Brock Athletics [then] proposed that the OUA include a women’s game on the Thursday. The University of Ontario Institute of Technology jumped on board immediately,” he said.
The chance to play outdoor hockey was something everyone on the team was looking forward to.
“I think everybody is really excited and it’s a great opportunity, obviously,” said Brock men’s head coach Murray Nystrom. “Probably a once-in-a-lifetime [experience] to be a part of it.”
The different conditions offer their own challenges, some of which can’t be simulated in practice. Outdoor game temperatures are rarely ideal, whether they’re too cold or too hot.
Too warm, and ice conditions deteriorate; too cold, and—well, it’s cold. The boards are less stable, the brightness of natural sunlight reflected off the snow and ice affects vision and the ice in general needs more repairs mid-game.
It was evident by Sunday that the ice around the goalpost pegs had deteriorated, as evidenced by several nets being knocked off with very little contact. Outdoor cardio and practicing with an extra layer of clothing can help, but unless you have some very high-end outdoor facilities, there are just some conditions that teams cannot duplicate.
It makes for a choppier game, necessitating a simpler, safer style of play. But if you asked any player, coach, referee or fan about their experience, you would be hard-pressed to find someone who regretted playing or watching.
For players who spent their childhood honing their game on ponds and outdoor rinks, playing in the outdoor classic is what dreams are made of.
“I’m from Alberta originally and it gets pretty cold,” said Brock forward Ryan Allen, who hails from Fort McMurray, Alberta. “[There’s] a lot of ponds and a lot of outdoor rinks and that’s all you did as a kid, play on the outdoor ponds and dream about doing it one day as a part of an organized game.”
On January 19, Brock’s women took down the UOIT Ridgebacks by a score of 3-2, coming back from a 2-1 third period deficit.
The aesthetic beauty of the outdoor game, which saw just about every kind of winter weather, was not lost on Hilson. “The women’s hockey game was out of a fairy tale. An outdoor rink, snow and the sun in the second period. It was absolutely perfect.”
For the men’s game, three busloads of Brock fans created a home away from home for the Badgers, singing the national anthem over the music, eating turkey legs in the stands and watching an impromptu “mascot” fight between two fans dressed as a hot dog and a bear.
“The atmosphere was electric and when the national anthem didn’t work and the fans took over—well, I don’t think I have ever been that fired up before a game in my entire career,” said Brock defenceman Isaac Smeltzer. “I found myself hoping that each period would never end.”
Waterloo won the men’s game 3-1.