Myers: Let's take it inside. The time has come for the outdoor hockey event fad to fade away
Outdoor games have been an interesting trend in hockey at all levels for the past two decades. But they have not gotten safer for players or more comfortable for fans. Let's be done with them.
Surely the biggest audience ever to watch a Bob Motzko-coached team was on hand in Orchard Park, N.Y., in late December of 2017. The World Juniors preliminary round game between Canada and Team USA – of which Motzko was the head coach – was played at the Buffalo Bills football stadium, with an official audience of more than 44,500 in attendance. The Americans won in a shootout, to the disappointment of tens of thousands of Canadian fans who had poured over the nearby border to root for the team with the maple leaf.
Five years later, on an episode of The Rink Live podcast , Motzko admitted that this spectacle for the fans and players, played with snow coming down as is particularly normal for western New York, was special for reasons both good and bad.
“I was cold,” the coach said. “It was an experience. You can say you’ve done it. I would prefer to keep hockey indoors.”
His attitude on outdoor games – which have been a kind of hockey fad since 2001 when Michigan and Michigan State skated to a tie at a sold-out Spartan Stadium in East Lansing – is spot on. They were cool and interesting just like lots of other developments in the game that have come and gone. Cooperalls, the glow puck, Olympic-size ice sheets, two-game total goals series and the Atlanta Thrashers come to mind as other recent examples.
But seemingly every time two teams take the either chippy or slushy ice at a temporary rink with a few thousand seats around it and no roof overhead, there is more and more evidence why the outdoor game phenomenon has run its course.
Wither the weather
The organizers of Hockey Day Minnesota 2011 got lucky with the playing conditions in Moorhead. Or so they thought. In the heart of the Red River Valley, where snow and blowing snow are seemingly a fact of everyday life in the winter, it was warm and sunny on the afternoon of Feb. 12 when visiting Hill-Murray took on the host Spuds in the day’s marquee matchup.
Everything seemed fine on a bluebird day. But on the Spuds’ first offensive rush, the two Hill-Murray defenders who were skating backwards went down hard as soon as their skates touched the blue line. The abundant sunshine had created slush anywhere the ice was painted, which was a problem, especially for the goalies trying to stay on their skates in the blue-painted crease.
By the end of that game, the area around the nets had become a dangerous mess. A dozen years later, one would think that the ice-maintaining technology would have improved, but fans watching Ohio State and Michigan play at the Cleveland Browns football stadium last weekend saw multiple stoppages in play due to dangerous conditions as toolbox-size chunks of ice were breaking loose along the boards.
At other Hockey Day Minnesota sites – Baudette and Bemidji come to mind – temperatures well below zero created a different kind of danger for fans and players. Student-athletes from Andover and Minnetonka, who played outside in Bemidji during HDM 2019, were treated for frostbite afterwards. In 2008 on a frozen river in Baudette, Blaine and Roseau played a 1-0 game with dangerous windchills making the environment miserable. Blaine star Nick Bjugstad, currently earning a paycheck for the NHL’s Arizona Coyotes, recalled his skates being literally frozen solid by game’s end, and Blaine’s coach said the Bengals took weeks to recover physically from the toll it took on their bodies.
What do you think of hockey games (high school and up) played in outdoor venues?— The Rink Live (@TheRinkLive) February 24, 2023
Even for the Winter Classic, which is run by the NHL and is generally regarded as best of the best for outdoor games, the conditions can be hazardous. In Minneapolis last year, it was well below zero at gametime, making it a difficult experience for fans who had waited more than a decade for the State of Hockey to host. In advance of the 2018 Winter Classic at Gillette Stadium outside Boston, a professional women’s game was played there with challenging ice conditions and Deena Laing, a former Princeton standout skating for the Boston Pride, was paralyzed after hitting bad ice and going headfirst into the boards.
Romance versus reality
In the run-up to every outdoor game we hear romantic stories about hockey “returning to its roots” of kids skating and learning the game on the neighborhood outdoor rink, and only leaving when mom insisted they come in for supper.
Indeed, a century ago, most hockey was played outdoors on frozen ponds, rivers or rinks, sometimes with boards and sometimes not. Players back then didn’t raise the puck often, because if you were playing on a rink without boards and you shot the puck out of the rink, you were tasked with crawling out to find it.
“If we had fresh snow, you might be gone a week,” former Gophers coach Doug Woog once joked about playing outdoor hockey in his native South St. Paul.
Also a century ago, hockey was played without much padding, with no helmets (not even for the goalies). And in the time of Hobey Baker and some of the game’s first American stars, the rules of hockey did not allow forward passes. You were required to skate the puck up ice, and could pass backward, but not forward.
So if we truly want to “return to hockey’s roots” with outdoor games, let’s be historically accurate: play with no boards, no pads, no helmets, on a frozen lake or river, with goal judges standing on the back of the net, and no forward passes allowed. Sounds crazy, right?
No less crazy than expecting fans to pay top dollar to sit outside in facilities not designed for hockey, with a bad view of the ice and often challenging weather conditions. We wouldn’t play modern hockey with the rules and equipment of a century ago, because it would be too dangerous. Yet we ignore all of the other risks and inconveniences of outdoor hockey in the name of nostalgia.
Standings and standards
At Hockey Day Minnesota 2020 in Minneapolis, Ohio State women’s hockey coach Nadine Muzerall was visibly shaking from the cold by the time her team’s loss to the Gophers concluded. But potential frostbite wasn’t her biggest concern. The push to play outdoor games that count in the standings, somehow making them more “legitimate,” has lots of coaches concerned about their place in the standings affected by ice and weather conditions that are sub-ideal.
One area college coach went as far as to say their team would only participate in future outdoor games if they were exhibitions, and not something that could affect the Pairwise, when it could be 12 below at faceoff, or periods could be shortened to 12 minutes for safety’s sake.
St. Thomas men’s coach Rico Blasi generally enjoyed HDM 2021 in Mankato, where the Tommies played outdoors, in the snow, versus Minnesota State Mankato. But previous outdoor games played at the Chicago Bears’ stadium when he was the head coach at Miami (Ohio) and the RedHawks were working for conference points, were more concerning.
“The thing that me as a coach would say, the one time we lost to Notre Dame, I thought it would cost us the CCHA title, and thankfully it didn't,” he said of the 2013 Hockey City Classic at Soldier Field. The RedHawks played there again in 2015, beating Western Michigan. “The second time I thought it was going to cost us the NCHC home ice and we won, so thankfully it didn’t. But that goes through your mind when you’re on the bench…When you win, it’s fun.”
Still, Blasi is generally a fan of the outdoor games, as a way to promote and grow hockey. He notably doesn’t talk about the 2010 NCAA Frozen Four, played indoors but on a temporary rink built over the turf of the Detroit Lions’ football stadium. The three games there (Blasi’s RedHawks fell to eventual national champion Boston College in the semifinals) drew more than 34,000 for each session, but the event was ultimately not considered successful by most fans, with complaints that seats were too far from the action, and the cavernous facility zapped the tournament of any atmosphere. Notably, in the dozen years since then, the Frozen Four has not returned to a stadium setting.
They did it once. No need to do it again. It is a sentiment echoed by more and more in the hockey world when the prospect of more outdoor hockey arises.
“I’ve kind of jokingly and kind of seriously said, ‘been there, done it,’” Motzko said when asked about that day outside of Buffalo. “It was cold and there was a blizzard going on. But the atmosphere for the players and fans was crazy.”
So unless we can play future games on a frozen river, in Cooperalls, with no forward passing, and somehow involve the Atlanta Thrashers, high-level games played at the mercy of the elements are another hockey fad that is due to quietly fade away any minute now. We’ve been there. We’ve done it. Let’s be done with it.
“I hope I’ve coached my last outdoor game,” Motzko said.