- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 21, 2006

Inside, situated between dressing rooms, there was a fireplace with a sizable blaze throwing off heat in case anybody was cold. Nobody took advantage.

Outside, the thermometer showed the air temperature to be 56 under a bright sun, yet the ice surface, the players said, was perfect — hard, fast and great for hockey.

Yesterday, for the first time in their 32-year history, the Washington Capitals practiced outdoors at a rink only slightly smaller than NHL regulation size at Chevy Chase Club along Connecticut Avenue.

It brought most of the players back to their childhoods, when they spent hours every day playing hockey with the other children in the neighborhood until their mothers came to drag them home or the rinks closed.

Even in colder climates, many outdoor rinks are being phased out, replaced by municipally or privately operated indoor plants with rules and structured systems.

“For me this was an everyday occurrence,” said coach Glen Hanlon, who grew up in Brandon, Manitoba, where winter comes early and stays late and finding a frozen patch of water is rarely a problem. “It’s a part of the game where even in the colder areas this is something that has gone by the wayside. Myself, we weren’t even allowed to play inside until we were 7. These are great memories for me.”

Several hundred people attended the session at the private club.

“We wanted a break from the routine,” Caps general manager George McPhee said.

Said left wing Alex Ovechkin: “It was a nice change of pace, for sure.”

Ovechkin said he, some of his buddies and his father played on the outdoor rinks back in Moscow. He was, as always, surrounded by fans seeking autographs and was signing everything in sight, as were his teammates.

Goalie Olie Kolzig, wearing eye black to guard against glare, recalled playing on the outdoor rinks in Edmonton before he moved to Toronto, with the games coming to a halt every 20 minutes or so while parents shoveled snow off the ice.

Left wing Matt Pettinger grew up in southern British Columbia, where the temperatures are often as high as they are in the Washington area but there is more rain and fog. There, rinks are indoors for practical reasons.

Said center Brooks Laich from tiny Wawota, Saskatchewan: “We had [an indoor] rink in my hometown, but it was the only rink in town, and often it would be in use. If it was being used, we’d go to the outside rink and play for hours, knocking each other into the snow banks, just having fun. There was no business side to it, none, just kids playing until your mother walked down the street to get you for supper.”

The owner of the local bar, Laich said, built a rink in a vacant lot next to his establishment. There was a water tower to flood the surface and farmers would bring bales of hay that became the boards.

“We’d be there all the time,” Laich said. “Just kids growing up in small-town Saskatchewan, and there’s not much to do. You’re working on your game all the time, but you don’t even know it.”

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