SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- The postcards that the NHL’s annual Winter Classic produces are always spectacular. From the snow globe effect of the first event in Buffalo to iconic ballparks like Fenway and Wrigley to the Big House at the University of Michigan, the league has generally scored an optical hit on its signature New Year’s Day event.
But the hockey itself in these? Well, that has been much more hit-or-miss than the winter wonderland atmosphere that is created.
Thanks to the elements, the ice can be a tad choppy, leading to a reduced impact from the game’s most creative players. Sun, wind, rain and snow can play big factors as well. But once players figure out what they can and cannot do on the ice, the competition takes over and it can produce some entertaining -- if a tad uneven -- hockey.
Torey Krug has played in two outdoor games, one with Michigan State at the Big House and the second with the Boston Bruins against the Montreal at Gillette Stadium.
“You want to get used to your bearings,” said Krug. “There are little things, like knowing where you are on the ice and how close you are to the boards when there are no fans sitting right there. I think the biggest obstacle -- I’ve played in two outdoor games now -- is the wind.
“Most people think it’s the ice conditions. But we play in a building where they play basketball games the afternoon before or the night before and the ice surface is always something you have to deal with but the wind is a big factor. Hopefully we get the tail wind for a couple of periods rather than against. But it’s just little things like that. The practice beforehand is a big deal.”
Tuesday, when the Bruins take on the Chicago Blackhawks at Notre Dame Stadium, will be Matt Grzelcyk’s first outdoor game as an NHLer, but when he was still playing at Belmont Hill back in 2010, he got to play at Fenway Park a couple of nights after when the Bruins played the Flyers, which had been a brutal game to watch until the B’s scored late to tie it and then won it in overtime.
“I actually remember (the ice) being really good,” recalled Grzelcyk. “It was actually a little harder because it was a lot colder. There was a light snowfall that night and it was in great condition. Maybe they rushed it a bit for the NHL game because it was still kind of new then, still figuring things out. But it was really good.”
Grzelcyk does remember other issues.
“A lot may have to do with the weather and I’m not exactly sure what that’s going to look like. But I had a really good experience with it. I know people have complained about it in years past, just with certain rivets in the ice,” said Grzelcyk. “A challenge for me was just kind of spatial awareness because you won’t have the fans piling up to the glass. It’s like shooting on a basketball court without fans. One of the NBA All-Star games they played in Dallas Cowboys Stadium and all the fans were way in back, so it must have been weird for them. That’s how I felt a little bit.”
The B’s had ice at the Compton Family Ice Arena on Sunday and had a late afternoon practice on the surface of Notre Dame Stadium on Monday.
“It’ll be huge,” said Grzelcyk. “And it will be fun to skate with family and enjoy that experience with them but I think getting in that practice the day before will definitely help, for sure.”
Jake DeBrusk hasn’t played in an outdoor game yet but he did attend the Heritage Classic between the Edmonton Oilers and Montreal Canadiens in Edmonton when he was a little kid, though they left early.
“It was a little too cold for my Dad,” cracked DeBrusk about his father, former NHL tough guy Louie DeBrusk.
He plans to get a good gauge on the ice beforehand.
“Talking to the guys who have played before, they’ve said there could be some ice chips, or chunks, coming out,” said DeBrusk. “But I think they’ll do a good job preparing that ice but I won’t know how it’s going to be until we go out and practice, to be honest. I guess you have to simplify your game from the start with the snow and maybe it’s bumping around. You see the goals that happen and they’re usually a five-hole shot or something. Not too many dekes. But both team are playing on the same sheet, so you just have to get used to it and do what you can.”
The 2019 Winter Classic Showdown between the Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins at Notre Dame Stadium will be on WILX Channel 10 at 1 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 1.
It's the 12th annual Winter Classic and Notre Dame is the 2nd college to host the New Year's Day tradition.
Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor hosted it in 2013 and 2014.