T.J. Oshie may be among the Capitals’ most experienced players, but the 31-year-old is ready for a fresh experience Saturday when the Capitals face the Maple Leafs at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis.
Oshie will be skating in his 650th NHL game, but his first outdoors, and will have nine family members in town from Seattle.
The game at the Naval Academy is especially meaningful for Oshie. Both of his grandfathers served on the same Navy ship — the USS Saint Paul — years before his parents met.
“It means a lot to my family that we’ll be playing there. You can never show enough appreciation for the military and for what they do for us,” Oshie said.
Oshie has seen bits and pieces of the NHL’s previous 24 regular-season games outdoors, and concedes he was jealous of those participating. After spending the first seven seasons of his career in St. Louis, Oshie was already in his second year in Washington when the Blues hosted the 2017 Winter Classic. The Capitals have played two games outdoors, a 3-1 win over Pittsburgh at Heinz Field in 2011 and a 3-2 victory over Chicago at Nationals Park in 2015.
Saturday’s game is a long time coming for Oshie, who spent hours skating by himself as a 9-year-old on his uncle’s backyard rink in Warroad, Minn.
“I don’t know if it matters or not that it’s an NHL game and there are refs out there,” he said, “but it seems like any time you get on a pond or skate outside, it turns into pure joy and fun.”
The NHL’s third outdoor game this season may be worth the same two points in the standings as any other regular-season game, but those who have played in previous outdoor games say they carry more weight. More than 35,000 fans are expected in Annapolis, where elaborate pregame ceremonies, custom uniforms and a national TV broadcast will create a big-event feel.
“It’s one of those big games where it would be cool to get on the scoresheet and cool to get a win,” said Brett Connolly, who skated for the Bruins at the 2016 Winter Classic. “I think guys are a little bit more motivated to maybe score a goal or make a big play.”
For defenseman Matt Niskanen, the NHL’s outdoor excursions are a chance to reconnect with his childhood. His youth team in Mountain Iron, Minn., played home games at an outdoor rink, where Niskanen’s father drove the Zamboni.
“The benefit to that was that I had as much ice time as I wanted and a key to the warming shack,” Niskanen said. “I could go whenever I wanted and stay as late as I wanted. That was a nice way to grow up.”
Saturday will be Niskanen’s third outdoor NHL game.
“I think everyone enjoys the experience of being outside and longing for the past of being a kid again,” he said. “Fans love it. It’s usually an awesome atmosphere. The regular season is a marathon, so to have something different and special like this, I think the players welcome it.”