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Stadium Series game sparks feelings of nostalgia for Lightning

Six Tampa Bay players have played in previous NHL outdoor games. For many, they bring back memories of playing on outside rinks and ponds as kids.
Lightning and then-New York Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh (27) challenges then-Buffalo Sabres center Jack Eichel (15) during the NHL Winter Classic hockey game in 2018 at CitiField in New York.
Lightning and then-New York Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh (27) challenges then-Buffalo Sabres center Jack Eichel (15) during the NHL Winter Classic hockey game in 2018 at CitiField in New York. [ ADAM HUNGER | AP ]
Published Feb. 18|Updated Feb. 19

TAMPA — Playing hockey outdoors takes Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh back to the winter days of his youth growing up in St. Paul, Minn. He’d rush home from school, lace up his skates and go out to his backyard rink, where a game would develop in a matter of minutes.

“I definitely remember being 8, 9, 10 years old and running up to the rink after school and playing outside with the guys all night,” McDonagh said. “It’s kind of put in your blood there in Minnesota with the long winters to get outside and play.”

McDonagh will participate in his fifth career NHL outdoor game this weekend, when the Lightning play the Nashville Predators in this year’s Stadium Series game Saturday at Nissan Stadium. McDonagh played his three previous outdoor games as a member of the New York Rangers, at sites like Yankee Stadium, Citi Field and Citizens Bank Park.

While the outdoor games are played in big stadiums and create equally large spectacles as some of the league’s top showcase events, it takes many of the players involved back to their first days playing the game they love.

“It’s goes back to having a rink in my backyard,” McDonagh said. “Like probably 90 percent of these guys, they were at least playing outside as a kid at the outdoor rinks. And that’s where you first started to play hockey, learned to skate. You were playing with your neighborhood friends, who were the first people you competed against, and it’s really where you fell in love or found joy with the game. It’s really special.”

A long time coming

Lightning and then-New York Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh (27) battles for the puck with Buffalo Sabres left wing Benoit Pouliot (67) in front of New York Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist during the NHL Winter Classic in 2018 at CitiField in New York.
Lightning and then-New York Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh (27) battles for the puck with Buffalo Sabres left wing Benoit Pouliot (67) in front of New York Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist during the NHL Winter Classic in 2018 at CitiField in New York. [ ADAM HUNGER | AP ]

Only six players on the Lightning roster (McDonagh, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Corey Perry, Pat Maroon, Brian Elliott and Zach Bogosian) have played in an NHL outdoor game, so for many — including those who have spent their entire career in Tampa Bay — this is a unique opportunity.

“Every winter, it was playing on the ponds, and a lot of my birthday parties were shinny games at the local ponds growing up,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. “So those memories were great. That’s how we grew up as Canadian kids. That’s how you learn to skate and learn to play hockey. I haven’t had a chance to play outdoors in a really long time. So I’m really looking forward to this.”

It’s been a long time coming. Twenty-six different NHL franchises will have participated in outdoor games by the time the Lightning play their first.

Stamkos will have played 890 games before his first outdoor contest, second-most among active players to Joe Thornton, who played 1,263 before his outdoor debut. Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman will have gone 866 career games before his first outdoors, which will the third-longest streak.

“We’ve been hungry for a game like that for a long time here, and it kind of felt like we were never going to get that opportunity,” Stamkos said. “So when that came up on the schedule, guys were really excited. Friends and family are excited about that, as well.

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“So a lot of us haven’t got that chance to play one of those games before, so we’ll have to lean on some of the guys that have. I think just to take in that experience, that’s going to be really fun.”

‘It’s got to be memorable’

Lightning and then-Philadelphia Flyers goaltender Brian Elliott (37) collides with the Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby (87) during an NHL Stadium Series game in 2019 at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia.
Lightning and then-Philadelphia Flyers goaltender Brian Elliott (37) collides with the Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby (87) during an NHL Stadium Series game in 2019 at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia. [ MATT SLOCUM | AP ]

Bellemare has participated in three NHL outdoor events, including for Colorado in last year’s NHL Outdoors at Lake Tahoe series, which was held without fans due to the pandemic. The Avalanche played the Golden Knights in the afternoon until heat and sunlight created poor ice conditions, forcing an hours-long delay. The teams resumed play in the evening.

Despite the conditions, Bellemare said he prefers to play outdoors during the day.

“It was amazing, because we got to play in the middle of the day when it was beautiful — the lake, the mountains, you can’t really beat that scenery,” he said. “And then at night, where it was a little bit colder, it was kind of more of a normal outdoor game during the darkness, and the ice was perfect.

“I think I would rather play during the day because the ice not being perfect kind of makes that element where you’re like, it’s an outdoor game, right? It can’t be perfect. But the rest was amazing. The only thing I was missing was fans.”

Bellemare also took part in an outdoor game in 2005 while playing professionally in his home country of France. Though the game was held in the picturesque town of Grenoble, at the foot of the French Alps, a rainstorm ruined the experience for him.

“You want snow, cold. It’s got to be memorable,” Bellemare said. “Otherwise, you might as well have been in the rink. So it was rainy, the puck wasn’t sliding. And it was in a place where normally it’s quite snowy in that time of the year, and somehow they had like a freaking rainstorm. The quality was terrible.”

Other Lightning players have taken part in outdoor games at other levels. Defenseman Cal Foote played for Team USA in a 2017 World Junior Championships game against a Canadian team that included Lightning rookie forwards Taylor Raddysh and Boris Katchouk in heavy snow at New Era Field in Buffalo.

While at Harvard, Lightning forward Alex Killorn played in an outdoor game against Union College in 2012 at Fenway Park. Before his four NHL outdoor games, McDonagh played outside for Wisconsin at the campus’ Camp Randall Stadium against Big Ten conference rival Michigan in 2010.

Each game is unique

Lightning and then-Buffalo Sabres defenseman Zach Bogosian (47), pictured against the New York Rangers during the NHL Winter Classic in 2018 at CitiField in New York.
Lightning and then-Buffalo Sabres defenseman Zach Bogosian (47), pictured against the New York Rangers during the NHL Winter Classic in 2018 at CitiField in New York. [ ADAM HUNGER | AP ]

No matter the venue, each outdoor game is unique, whether it is planned or unplanned. Music performances country music artists Miranda Lambert and Dierks Bentley are among the acts that will perform in Nashville and pregame festivities add to the showcase feel. There’s time for family and friends, and even a family skate on the ice is a tradition before the day of game. Since returning from the all-star break, the Lightning have been breaking in white gloves and blue pants for the game in their practices.

“That’s going to be a great experience, and obviously the first one I’ve had as an NHL player,” Hedman said. “I’m gonna have a lot of family there to share that experience with me. It’s great. I know (Lightning owner) Mr. (Jeff) Vinik has been longing to have an outdoor game and now we’ve got one — not at home but in Nashville. ... We also are looking forward to seeing a lot of Bolts jerseys in the stands.”

Sometimes, the unexpected occurs.

In each of McDonagh’s first two outdoor games, the start was delayed — including a two-hour postponement in his first outdoor game in 2012 in Philadelphia — because of sun glare and warm temperatures affecting the ice.

“The different venues, they’re always unique,” he said. “They add little touches here and there. So whether you played in one or five or 10, everyone has a different feel and a different level of excitement, and they bring great creativity to the games.”

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