Back on the family farm in Lloydminster, Saskatchewan, when the creeks would freeze during the winter, a young Braden Holtby would practice his craft outside. It was quiet and peaceful, and Holtby can still picture where he was when he fell in love with playing hockey.
“It was some of the best memories of my life,” Holtby said. “I can remember them crystal clear.”
Holtby’s first NHL game outside, the 2015 Winter Classic at Nationals Park, was nothing like that. It was loud and bright, more than 40,000 people watching Holtby and the Washington Capitals – not exactly the solitude of his backyard. But the spectacle still brought that childhood nostalgia of skating outside, and the deafening walk back to a winning locker room after the 3-2 win over the Chicago Blackhawks is another memory Holtby still cherishes.
Four years earlier, the Capitals beat the Pittsburgh Penguins, 3-1, in a Winter Classic at Heinz Field. Center Jay Beagle had been called up from the minors for that game.
“A big moment for me – it was big for my career,” Beagle said.
The Capitals kept their good outdoors fortune going Saturday, prevailing 5-2 over the Toronto Maple Leafs in a Stadium Series game at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis. The setting was more intimate, to many players’ delight, and was a rematch of an entertaining first-round playoff series won by the Capitals last year, one in which five of the six games required overtime.
With the Capitals once again skating outside, the team shared its recollections from their youth, two previous outdoor games and most recent win at the Naval Academy, during which the stadium’s lights failed momentarily in the third period.
Playing outdoors as a kid
Braden Holtby: “That’s all I did growing up. After school, we’d just go to the outdoor rinks or the ponds. That’s just what you did.”
“There’s no one around. You can hear everything, every sound – the skate blades or pucks or whatever. If you haven’t experienced it, it’s pretty special. You know, when I was on the farm, sometimes the little creeks would freeze over and I’d just go out by myself.”
Nicklas Backstrom: “I was playing outdoors until I was 13 or 14, I think, so a long time. It’s fun. Obviously, it brings you back to memories from when you’d wake up on a Saturday morning and look out the window, like, ‘Oh, the sun is shining. Perfect.’ It just brings back some good memories from that. It’s such a cool thing that the NHL is doing this three times year. It’s awesome.”
Heinz Field Winter Classic, Pittsburgh
Jay Beagle: “I got called up like three games before and didn’t know if I was going to stay. That one was pretty special, just being able to play in it. I got to start in it with [Dave] Steckel and [Matt Hendricks]. So, a big moment for me – it was big for my career. It was big for confidence, that [then-Coach Bruce Boudreau] put me in the lineup and also started me against [Pittsburgh center Sidney] Crosby and [Evgeni] Malkin and the top line. Those kind of things when you’re younger and just coming in really make an impact on your career.”
Backstrom: “You have to take the energy out of it in a positive way, get going from it. But it’s a nice feeling to walk into the stadium.”
Nationals Park Winter Classic, Washington
Holtby: “It was tough because the ice conditions were a little bit strange. Just the time of day, one end was tough because there were shadows everywhere on the ice, right when you came across the blue line. That made it pretty stressful because if you ask any goalie, when you’re playing in some sort of rink that has shadows or anything, it is very tough to track the puck. That game, I didn’t really soak in any of the atmosphere. I was trying the whole time just not to lose track of the puck because you still have to perform and you have to battle through those little things. In the end, your job is to play hockey and not to soak in the atmosphere. That’s for the fans and everyone who’s watching on TV.”
Brooks Orpik: “It’s definitely a spectacle of sorts. You have to keep in mind that it’s the same two points as any other regular-season game, so you’ve got to be reminded of that throughout the whole thing because you can definitely get caught up in kind of just the whole excitement of everything.”
“It can be tiring at times, too, just for one regular-season game. But I think guys still view it as a tremendous privilege to play in one.”
Beagle: “You score, and I remember even us scoring, and not really even hearing the fans, but hearing them off into a distance. That’s a little bit different and pretty cool. Just playing outside is a lot of fun.”
Holtby: “At the end, it was awesome because we’d won obviously – and in a pretty good fashion. Obviously the walk off from the rink to the locker room with the fans, it was pretty unique, especially being a big baseball fan. That was a pretty cool experience. That was fun, but you’ve got to earn that, and you earn that during the game and playing to the best of your abilities. That’s what makes it rewarding.”
2018 Stadium Series, Annapolis
Matt Niskanen: “It was a blast. Really fun. The conditions were great. I didn’t think the wind was a factor very much. The ice was awesome. The crowd was having fun. Even though the lights went out, they were still singing. It was a great experience for everybody. We will remember that one.”
Coach Barry Trotz: “My coaching moment wasn’t on the ice, but actually when I was underneath [the stadium] when I was running into some of those midshipmen, asking them where they were from.”
Tom Wilson: “That definitely gets the feels going. … Those are the people that are going to be serving and protecting our country. All the traditions … it’s awesome for them to let us be a part of it for a night and it’s nice to get a win for them. Hopefully they had a good time as well.”
T.J. Oshie: “Every whistle you’re looking around and really taking it all in. For us to go out and be able to enjoy something like this is an experience of a lifetime for us and it’s all possible because of what our military guys do for us.”