ARLINGTON, Va. — In the NHL, outdoor games are a rare break from the normal routine. The league schedules only a handful of games exposed to the elements each season. They’re just as unique an experience for the players as they are for the fans, introducing stadium factors and large-capacity crowds that can’t be found in the typical hockey arena.
So when the Capitals take on the Carolina Hurricanes at NC State’s Carter-Finley Stadium for the 2023 Stadium Series game Saturday night, both teams will be stepping into a different type of atmosphere they’ve become accustomed to playing at the highest level. But for many members of the Capitals, playing outside takes them back to their early days of strapping on skates.
“I was playing outdoors until I was 13, 14,” center Nicklas Backstrom said. “That's when we built the hockey rink in my small village. Before that, it was all outdoors. We got used to everything. It was snowing, raining, we played through everything. So it was kind of unique that way and obviously, it brings back memories from that.”
Backstrom, who was born and raised in Sweden, was far from alone. Several players learned how to skate outside rather than at an enclosed rink like the one they practice at between games. Goaltender Darcy Kuemper grew up just a five-minute walk from the outdoor rink where his father taught him how to skate.
If there wasn’t a rink available, some of them would make their own.
“We had roller hockey just on asphalt and then some of the parents would put water on it in the winter,” center and Danish native Lars Eller said. “It was cold enough so you play on that if you couldn't get in the indoor rinks.”
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Capitals center Dylan Strome recalled playing outside as some of his fondest childhood memories. He and his little brother Matthew stumbled upon a large patch of ice that formed in a field across the street from their house in Ontario. They shoveled out enough space to play, carried a net over and spent hours playing one-on-one.
Strome also had a family friend who would convert their backyard into a makeshift hockey rink for the neighborhood kids to play on.
“Their dad was keen on making it their entire backyard so it was pretty much fence-to-fence and it was awesome,” Strome said. “They had a little hill on the one side off the ice so everyone sits like a bench. There’s lots of Little Caesars pizza and I'm sure some beers drank for the old fathers there but we had a great time. We played hours and hours and hours on that rink. They had a big light out there and a couple pucks in the neighbor's yard I'm sure. But that was fun.”
Like Backstrom, forward Marcus Johansson grew up in Sweden where temperatures would get down to minus-10 degrees Fahrenheit. It sometimes got so cold that the ocean would freeze along the shoreline.
“I have a lot of them,” Johansson said of memories playing outside. “Skating on the ocean a few times, I grew up on the ocean and when it was cold enough and a few times on some lakes and then we used to always play outdoors. When it was cold, we would flood our own ice and we’d run on it. We couldn’t get the ice thick enough to skate on it but we’d run on it and slide around and play outdoors.”
Outdoor rinks may be only reserved for marquee events at the NHL level, but for many young hockey players they’re a space where they honed their skills or faced off against their friends. Even after those kids grow up to be world-class players, stepping back onto the ice with the open sky above them still brings back a sense of familiarity.
“I was out there until two in the morning,” forward T.J. Oshie said of playing outside as a high schooler in Minnesota. “I'd wake up at five and I was right back out there. So, had a couple almost-bouts with frostbite, but it was super special and obviously memories that, they're still important to me and [I’m] very fond of.”