MADISON — Nearly everyone who has laced up a pair of ice skates and played hockey has done so outdoors — on a pond or at a local park. For most of the University of Wisconsin men’s hockey team, however, Saturday’s extravaganza — the Frozen Tundra Classic against Ohio State, to be played inside Lambeau Field — will be their first experience playing an organized game outdoors.
“I played a lot outdoors, just as a kid, just kind of screwing around a little bit,” said Eau Claire, Wis. native and junior center Jake Dowell. “We had to shovel off the ice by ourselves… never really in a structured, organized situation with refs.”
Duluth, Minn. natives Nick Licari and Ross Carlson are exceptions to the rule.
In Duluth, hockey rinks are a ubiquitous feature of the urban landscape. The city of roughly 87,000 is home to a youth hockey association that uses a dozen outdoor park sites for the majority of its practices and games.
Licari and Carlson cut their hockey-playing teeth in the Duluth Amateur Hockey Association.
“I really didn’t play indoors until PeeWees, which is sixth or seventh grade,” Licari said. “Growing up in Duluth we played outdoors pretty much the whole time except the last game of the year.”
Even the most competitive DAHA games, of course, will not compare to the experience Saturday — when an expected 40,000 fans descend on Lambeau.
“I kind of like it outdoors,” Licari said. “My parents are kind of having some flashbacks from standing on the snow banks” watching the games. “I’m excited and I think a lot of the guys are excited.”
Dowell said he is “super excited” to play outdoors at Lambeau, even though his most vivid recollection of outdoor hockey is far from pleasant. When he was about 12 years old, a player who was skating in front of Dowell fell to the ice and his skate blade caught the inside of Dowell’s right leg.
“I was skating behind him and sliced open the inside of my leg, and they thought it was at the main artery,” Dowell said. Thankfully, that was not the case, but an ambulance came for him and he ended up “getting a bunch of stitches.”
“I have a big scar down the inside of my leg,” Dowell said. “So I’ve always been kind of careful when I skate and don’t have pads on.”
Freshman goalie Shane Connelly, who grew up in Philadelphia, has never truly played outdoors, though his home rink had a roof but no sides. When the Badgers practice at Lambeau Friday afternoon, Connelly hopes to have a feel for how the puck will look coming off opponents’ sticks outdoors.
The trick is that conditions Saturday will be variable — no uniform temperature and lighting on a winter day in Wisconsin. The forecast calls for a high of 25 degrees and 10 mile-per-hour winds, with periods of clouds and sunshine and intermittent snow flurries.
“We don’t know how the ice is going to be,” senior defenseman Tom Gilbert said. “We don’t know what kind of weather we are going to have to deal with.”
The cold probably will not be an issue for the players, though they are accustomed to playing in an indoor arena that Licari qualified as warm. Freshman center Ben Street, for example, said he has played outside in temperatures as frigid 68 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, skating on the pond a few blocks from his home in Coquitlam, British Columbia.
“Once you get a good sweat going not too much will keep you cold,” Street said.
Unlike Licari and Carlson, Street grew up playing most of his hockey indoors, but he has a fond pond hockey memory from when he was six or seven years old.
“Our neighbors across the street were probably seven or eight years older than I was,” Street said. “They asked me to go one day. It was all older guys and me. And I think I remember I got a hat trick that day. And I’m sure three goals was nothing compared to everyone else, but I remember telling my parents I got a hat trick today out on the pond.”
Gilbert, a native of Bloomington, Minn., had a rink in his backyard, where his next-door neighbor, former UW center Joe Bianchi, would join him. He also played pickup games on a frozen pond nearby.
“Just playing with no boards, being able to check people into snow on the side,” Gilbert said. “That was always fun. Just go out there, mess around, throw people around, jump in the snow.”
The Lambeau rink will have boards, of course, as did the DAHA rinks of Licari’s youth.
“Even (when) I go back now at Christmas… I skated (outside) everyday when I was home,” Licari said. “It’s a blast. I love it.”