By Sara Romano
Chicago Wolves defenseman Brent Sopel has fond memories of his childhood hockey days growing up in Calgary.
“I grew up with a rink in my backyard that my dad would flood for me every winter,” Sopel recalled. “Growing up in Canada, that’s all we wanted to do. We didn’t want to go to school, we wanted to play on the outdoor rink.”
Capturing that childhood nostalgia is a constant refrain, and a source of the popularity behind outdoor hockey games for both players and fans.
“Everybody’s been there,” said Sopel, a member of the 2010 Stanley Cup-winning Blackhawks and on the ’09 team that played in the 2009 NHL Winter Classic at Wrigley Field. “It doesn’t matter if you are still playing hockey now. Just about everybody has grabbed a stick and is out there whacking the puck around in the wintertime. …That’s what its all about.”
With outdoor hockey returning to Chicago this weekend for the Hockey City Classic, Wolves players and coaches alike said they would relish the opportunity to participate in an outdoor event.
“I would love it,” said Wolves head coach John Anderson. “I grew up playing outside to start, and I think it brings back good memories for me. I wish we would do one.”
Sopel echoed that sentiment.
“It would be exciting,” he said. “Any time you can be a part of something special like that…it just brings us back to the childhood. It’s a great experience and I know the fans enjoy it.”
Since 2010, there have been seven outdoor games played in the AHL. In 2012 in Philadelphia and 2013 in Detroit, the games were played in conjunction with the NHL Winter Classic events.
Wolves forward Shane Harper played in the 2012 AHL Outdoor Classic event at Citizen’s Bank Park in Philadelphia and cites the experience as one of the highlights of his career.
“It was so cool. There were like 43,000 people there, which was an AHL record,” Harper recounted. “It was a lot more fun and a lot different than I thought it was going to be. I didn’t think it was going to be that exciting…but it really was. It was a really cool atmosphere.”
In front of the largest single-game crowd in league history, Harper scored the overtime game-winning goal to help the Adirondack Phantoms beat the Hershey Bears 4-3.
“It was a blast,” the Wolves winger said. “It was so much fun. I would love to play in another one some day. It is so much more fun that you would expect.”
While there are admittedly challenges to an outdoor game that would not be a factor indoors, the overriding consensus was the experience would be worth it.
“Everything is different about it,” Sopel said. “The game is different, your routine is different …where you are playing, everything. But it is something special to be a part of.”
Anderson concurred, stating that even with weather being a factor, “the ice is the same for both teams. I think the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages.”
Wolves GM Wendell Young said that an outdoor event is something that has been considered in Chicago, but for now the logistics are too difficult.
“We’ve thought about it at Soldier Field,” Young said. “But it’s a massive undertaking. It’s a really cool concept, but the undertaking … I don’t know if the reward is as big as it would be.”
This season, in lieu of an outdoor game, the AHL scheduled a game at the 50,000-seat Carrier Dome in Syracuse, N.Y. between the Syracuse Crunch and the Utica Comets. The game set an indoor attendance record for professional hockey of 30,175 fans.
According to AHL vice president of communications Jason Chaimovitch, there are no immediate plans to host another AHL outdoor game.
The NHL announced last week that the 2015-‘16 season will feature three outdoor games, including a contest between the Blackhawks and the Minnesota Wild at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.