it's always a memorable skate outside


KETTLER CAPITALS ICEPLEX —  Every Capitals player has a story about playing outdoors.

Braden Holtby skated on a frozen pond in his hometown of Lloydminster, Saskatchewan or in a backyard rink. Chandler Stephenson once scored a game-winning goal outdoors playing in the Western Hockey League as a 16-year-old. T.J. Oshie as a young kid would sneak out of his house in the wee hours of the morning and skate on his Uncle Henry Boucha’s backyard rink in Warroad, Minnesota.

Saturday night in Annapolis, the Caps play the Toronto Maple Leafs at Navy-Marine Corps Stadium in an NHL Stadium Series game, a merging of childhood memories and pro careers for the players and coaches involved.

“It’s different,” Caps forward Tom Wilson said. “You’re outside your comfort zone. It’s fun to play outdoors. There’s a lot of attention. You get family and stuff in. It brings some joy to the game and I think a lot of guys have fun with it.”

The game will be broadcast nationally on NBC in the United States and CBC across Canada. The Olympic gold-medal winning United States men’s curling and women’s hockey teams will be honored. A big crowd is expected and players like the tie in with the Naval Academy.     

Oshie has a personal connection to the site. His paternal and maternal grandfathers both served on the same ship in the Navy. Little did the good friends, Richard Oshie and Dexter Mullen, know that their children would meet independently at Everett Community College years later. T.J. Oshie’s parents, Tim and Tina, only then learned their fathers had been friends in the military.  

“You can never show enough appreciation for the military for what they do for us,” Oshie said. “I happen to like hearing the stories and try to follow along closely and have had the advantage of meeting some really interesting people… Emotionally, mentally to have a game like this outdoors, the way it’s covered, for the American guys to have it in Annapolis, it’s special. It kind of takes you away from the regular season, which is also fun for one game.”

The Caps have played in outdoor games before, of course. They won the 2011 Winter Classic against the Pittsburgh Penguins 3-1 and the 2015 Winter Classic at Nationals Park against the Chicago Blackhawks 3-2 in overtime. Oshie missed out by one year. He was traded to the Capitals in 2015, 18 months before the St. Louis Blues hosted the Blackhawks in the Stadium Series. But plenty of other players, including Holtby, have experience playing an NHL game outside.

“The part you look forward to the most is the feeling after you win so you have to focus on how to get that win in the first place,” Holtby said. “How to prepare, how to battle through the different elements. It really is rewarding because it’s a lot more challenging than any other game with the different elements and circumstances.”        

Caps coach Barry Trotz is planning to use the Stadium Series event to raise some money for causes he champions. He had some of Washington’s top players sign several Naval officers’ caps and will auction them off afterward with proceeds going to the Naval Academy’s club hockey team, the Best Buddies charity that works with special-needs children and also the Wounded Warriors program.

“There’s only going to be four of them in the world,” Trotz cracked. “Just saying.”

Expected bad weather has created some headaches for event organizers. Winds could gust above 50 miles-per-hour on Friday and rain remains in the forecast. The NHL has canceled the outdoor practices at Navy-Marine Corps Stadium scheduled for the Maple Leafs at 10 a.m. and the Capitals at 3 p.m.

Washington will practice at Kettler and the Leafs will skate at the Brigade Sports Complex at the Naval Academy. Both teams hope to hold morning skates at the stadium Saturday if the weather cooperates and NHL officials can put the rink boards up once the wind dies down.

The hope is the weather clears and crisp temperatures return to the area before the 8 p.m. puck drop. The NHL also hopes to get a game that transcends its endless regular season. It will feature two teams heading to the Stanley Cup playoffs who faced each other in a tough six-game series in the first round last spring. It’s not quite like when they were kids skating on ponds or canals or outside rinks — but it’s close enough to the real thing.      

“The aura of skating outside is it’s quiet,” Holtby said. “There’s nothing else around you. It’s probably the most peaceful place on earth when you just hear your skates gliding, echoing against the trees. It’s not the same that way. And it will never be the same that way. But it is a neat way to tie the two together, tie the arenas and skating outside with it. It’s a meet-in-the middle thing.”

Photo by Brian McNally for The Sports Capitol

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