A U.S.-Canada hockey game always qualifies as an event unto itself. Player emotions sizzle. Fan passions blaze.
“There are certain games that come through where you don’t have to say a word to your players, they’re ready to go, This is one of them,” U.S. coach Bob Motzko said. “You walk through the locker room and there’s a different feel. It’s amped up. That’s what rivalries are all about. There’s a little juice in the air. You can just feel it.”
U.S.-Canada is big, anytime, anywhere. Now let’s amplify the setting. Instead of renewing the rivalry before some 20,000 fans, let’s open the live viewing opportunity to more than double that number. And let’s heighten the spectacle by playing in an outdoor setting within the confines of an NFL stadium. Now what do we have?
“It’s big enough indoor when it’s 20,000 fans,” Canadian forward Taylor Raddysh said. “I can’t even imagine double that or triple that.”
No imagination required. The next chapter of U.S.-Canada will be unlike any other as the rivals meet at 3 p.m. Friday in a World Junior Championship preliminary-round matchup at New Era Field. It marks the first time the International Ice Hockey Federation has taken a tournament game into the elements.
“It’ll be cool,” said Canada defenseman Jake Bean. “It’s definitely going to be one of those once-in-a-lifetime things. You go into the game knowing it’s going to be lots of emotion and it’s going to be pretty crazy. I just try and enjoy it the whole time.”
“We want to use this kind of crowd to our advantage,” U.S. forward Kieffer Bellows said. “There’s always going to be a lot of intensity in a U.S.-Canada game. It’s going to be exciting.”
While outdoor games have been part of hockey culture since the sport was invented, their relaunch dates to 2001. That’s when the Cold War was played between Michigan and Michigan State in front of 74,554 at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Mich.
The NHL got into the mix in 2003 with the first Heritage Classic, played at Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium between the Oilers and the Montreal Canadiens.
Next came the Frozen Tundra Hockey Classic in 2006, pitting Wisconsin and Ohio State at Lambeau Field in Green Bay.
Then came the NHL Winter Classic in 2008, an internationally televised matchup between the Buffalo Sabres and Pittsburgh Penguins played at today’s site, then known as Ralph Wilson Stadium. More than 70,000 attended, snow swirled and the outdoor-game trend exploded.
The NHL now features the Winter Classic on Jan. 1, the Heritage Classic (featuring Canadian teams) and the NHL Stadium Series.
The idea of playing a World Juniors game outdoors was presented by USA Hockey to the IIHF. Canada gave its approval and tournament officials began preparations.
“We threw out the idea of let’s try to find something unique and the Sabres came back and said they had that idea for the outdoor game,” said Mike Bertsch, USA Hockey’s assistant executive director. “Certainly there’s some risk to it and we decided the rewards are going to be far, far greater than the risks. Certainly it’s going to help us elevate the juniors in the U.S. and that’s one of the things we wanted to do. All in all, the risk certainly was well worth the effort.”
“Whenever we can do something which makes the headlines, which draws more spectators, which draws the non-hockey fans to the rink because it’s a big event – let’s be part of it – then we have achieved what we can,” said Hannes Ederer, IIHF deputy secretary general. “We support it as long as we have to make sure the other teams also agree. We can only give opportunity to two teams. We don’t want to play more than one outdoor game.”
Don’t look for an outdoor game to be a necessary part of future World Juniors.
“We don’t have many locations which can afford this,” Ederer said. “It’s a lot of extra money you have to put in and the organizer has to recover from it. That is the more commercial and economic part of it, so you really have to be sure you fill the stadium and whenever you’re back in Europe, this tournament does not have the magnitude it has in North America. It’s building now.”
Outdoor games create uncertainties and coaches, maybe even more than players, cringe over uncertainties. Will the surface be fast or slowed by snow? Will bounces of the boards and the glass be unpredictable? Coaches worry by nature and Motzko had his concerns upon learning that U.S.-Canada would be played outdoors.
After all, there already are plenty of distractions for teenage hockey players at the World Juniors. There is already enough hoopla surrounding this preliminary-round game.
“I’ll be honest, from a coaching standpoint, it’s too big a distraction. You don’t want it. That’s your first reaction,” said Motzko, in his second year as the coach of the U.S. National Junior Team. “You probably hold that for a good month where you wish it weren’t outside. It’s such a big game.”
After his initial resistance, Motzko and his coaching staff have warmed to the game and all that goes along with it.
“Over time, we embraced it,” Motzko said. “You’re not winning a medal that night anyway. You know you might as well go for it and let the guys have that moment. I’ve never been in one, so it will be the first time for me and it’s probably true for a lot of these guys. They haven’t had that experience.”
Many of the players said this would be their first outdoor game. Well, at least their first since playing pond hockey or on backyard rinks.
“It’s going to be pretty cool once the team suits up for that,” Raddysh said. “I know a lot of guys haven’t played in an outdoor game or anything like that since they were little kids playing pond hockey. It’ll be a pretty cool experience to be out there at an NFL stadium in front of, I’m not sure how many fans, probably at least 40,000. It’ll be electric.”
Raddysh is rather spot-on with attendance figures. With the endzones covered up to create a more intimate atmosphere, the capacity will be 47,000. Between 40,000 and 45,000 are expected to attend, although some fans could be deterred by frigid temperatures expected to hover around 5 degrees come opening faceoff. The attendance record for a World Junior game is 20,380, set when Canada played Sweden for the gold medal in Ottawa in 2009.
Weather conditions helped in making that 2008 Winter Classic between the Sabres and the Penguins all the more memorable. USA’s Bellows remembers and is hoping for similar conditions.
“I mean, I want to see a nice 2008 Buffalo Winter Classic like we did with the snow and everything and that atmosphere,” he said. “I think that would be pretty cool. If we get some snow, that’d be exciting but we just have to go into that game like it’s any other game. I mean the conditions, depending on what they are, you just have to push those aside and keep grinding through that game. No matter if it’s snow or sunny or rainy. We just have to play our game.”
Bellows is one of the few players with experience in an outdoor game. Last year after winning the World Junior gold medal with the Team USA, he returned to Boston University. His first game back with the Terriers was against the University of Massachusetts at Frozen Fenway. BU won, 5-3.
“I think the ice at Frozen Fenway was a little choppy at the start,” Bellows said. “As the game goes on, it gets a little better because they’re resurfacing and all that but at the beginning it’s choppy. The ice can get a little chippy. It’s different. The atmosphere is going to be a little different. It’s going to be cold. You just have to battle through all those little adversities and just get through it.”
U.S. goaltender Jake Oettinger also learned lessons from Frozen Fenway. Last year’s third-string goalie for Team USA, he made 26 saves in that Frozen Fenway win for Boston University.
Oettinger said he wore latex gloves under his hockey gloves and covered his nose and ears in Vaseline. Other than using tricks to keep warm, Oettinger found the key to an outdoor game is to simplify.
“You’ve just got to really keep it simple and you have to be really prepared, especially being a goalie,” Oettinger said. “You can’t really let the circumstances affect the preparation that you do and kind of treat it as a normal game.
“Definitely you have to simplify it with the lighting and potentially snow and the cold. It’s definitely a challenge but it’s an awesome challenge and it’s something that’s really fun.”
Or, as Canada’s Bean put it: “It’ll be a whole new ballgame out there.”