‘Holy crap, that was cold.’ Leafs and Sabers get first taste of outdoor hockey in Hamilton

HAMILTON Maple Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly pretty much summed up what every NHL player ultimately thinks about playing regular-season games outdoors.

“You want to enjoy it,” Rielly said. “Maybe your parents are coming into town or you’ve got some friends that are going to the game. You want to enjoy it and experience the whole thing for what it is.

“But ultimately, you want to win the game. I’ve played in a couple now. The ones you win are a lot more enjoyable than the ones you lose.”

Rielly has been in all three outdoor games the Leafs have participated in: a 3-2 shootout win in at the University of Michigan’s Big House in Ann Arbor on Jan. 1, 2014 in the Winter Classic; a 4-3 overtime win over the Red Wings in Toronto in the Centennial Classic on Jan. 1, 2017; and a 5-2 loss to the Washington Capitals in a Stadium Series game at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Md.

“I remember going to Washington and we lost that game, and we didn’t play very well,” he said. “And you leave there and you think the whole thing’s dumb, you should never have done it. But the ones you win? It’s the best thing ever.”

The Leafs will play their fourth outdoor game on Sunday, officially the visitors at Hamilton’s Tim Hortons Field against the Buffalo Sabers in a battle of Golden Horseshoe teams. It’s a welcome distraction for both in the doldrums of the regular season, getting them away from the routine and giving them a chance to feel something special.

“The season is long. We’re at that point right now where you’re about to round the corner here on the final stretch. So to have something like this, the timing is good,” said Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe. “With where (we are in) the pandemic, (it’s good finally) to have an event like this where people are coming together, families are coming together.”

Both clubs got to practice at the home of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats on Saturday. The Leafs took the ice at 6:30 pm amid blowing snow and minus-7 C temperatures, followed by a skate with invited family and friends.

“Holy crap, that was cold,” said Leaf Mitch Marner.

“Reminds me of Phoenix a little bit,” joked teammate Auston Matthews. “It was tough: the wind, the snow.”

Auston Matthews: Outdoor games “feel like so much more.”

Captain John Tavares skated with his toddler sons, Jace and Axton, after practice: “I think the cold got to them. Plus, they should have been sleeping an hour ago.”

Sunday’s forecast is calling for minus-2 C at the 4:30 pm puck drop, with scattered flurries that might make the backdrop — including Hamilton’s famed steel mills — that much more interesting.

“The practice today was later for us,” said Keefe. “We didn’t get a real sense of what it would be like in the sun, in the daylight, and the shadows that might be out there, as it seemed like it was for Buffalo’s practice. So there’ll be some of that to adjust to. But we just have to be ready to compete, whatever the conditions are going to be.”

The Sabers got the ice at 4:30 pm and emerged with smiles on their faces, and red in their cheeks, rubbing their hands as they faced the media.

“The cold, that was the first wow factor,” said Sabers coach Don Granato. “The wind was the second. But the setup is spectacular. And when you walk off, it really hits you: You just went through that practice and you had that experience of being outside again, playing hockey.

“The ice conditions were exceptional. They did a tremendous job on the ice, the environment and atmosphere. It was fun to just watch our guys have fun. But it was definitely cold.”

But not as cold as growing up playing outdoors in the Yukon, said Sabers forward Dylan Cozens: “It did feel real cold out there today, but I’m used to that. I grew up in the Yukon and I had a rink in my backyard that my dad built. So I spent lots of late nights and lots of days out there. So I’m hoping that I can use some of the skills I learned back then.”

The best way to stay warm? “The harder you work, the warmer you get. That’s a good incentive.”

It’s the final outdoor game on the NHL calendar this season, though the tradition is not slowing down.

The Winter Classic will be held at Boston’s famed Fenway Park next year, with the Bruins hosting an opponent yet to be announced. That game is usually Jan. 1, but that has not been confirmed. The Carolina Hurricanes will also host a game at Carter-Finley Stadium on the campus of North Carolina State University in Raleigh, NC, on Feb. 25.

Though gimmicky to some eyes, the outdoor games seem to be a joy to the players.

“It’s just a different experience,” said Matthews. “The anticipation, the energy and everything that surrounds the game. And it’s just a regular-season game in March. It just feels like so much more. That’s the fun part about these experiences. Getting to enjoy it with your teammates, friends, family and getting everybody involved and getting to experience something like this. Not too many people are able to.”


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