- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Aaron Lamontagne’s family owned two hockey nets, so when the plows would come sweeping through and pile up the snow in mounds outside his house, Blair Littlejord and Dean Horvath and Trystan Meyers and Jason Shier and Kurt Ketcheson and Brooks Laich would all rush down to the far end of Pipestone Crescent to pull them out of the garage.

Life was simple in Wawota, Saskatchewan, where the 10-year-olds played road hockey from the minute they got home until the flicker of the streetlights at 6 o’clock signaled suppertime. Even then, it was only a temporary pause; after inhaling the meal, they’d grab their skates and gloves from the radiator, all still soaked with water and sweat, and rush back outside to squeeze in another hour or two under the dim glow.

“That’s where you really get your appreciation and your passion for the sport,” Laich said. “You’re not paid anything there. Nobody’s telling you to do it. Friends are getting together and playing the sport.”

Those twangs of innocence will return for Laich on Thursday, when the Washington Capitals host the Chicago Blackhawks at Nationals Park in the annual Winter Classic. The seventh installment of the game, which has become the NHL’s marquee event, will be attended by more than 40,000 people in temperatures that are expected to hover just above freezing.

But for Laich, and 13 other Capitals players who have taken part in one of the league’s handful of outdoor games over the years, there’s nothing more pure than a stick, a puck, two skates and a sheet of ice splayed out under the open sky.

“It’s something different,” defenseman Mike Green said. “You can only fit 20,000 people in a hockey rink, when you can get about 70,000 into an outdoor game. And it’s a whole unique experience — the way that the players come out and play the game is different, and all the hoopla around it, so it’s definitely an exciting time.”

Preparations for the Winter Classic have lasted more than a year, with the Capitals revealed as the host of the next installment of the game in Sept. 2013. They were the visiting team in 2011, when the event was held at Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field, and their selection as host was considered reciprocation for their appearance four years prior.

Washington defeated the Penguins, 3-1, that year, with Mike Knuble tying the score in the second period and Eric Fehr scoring two goals late to give his team what became an insurmountable advantage.

A slight rain led to water pooling on the rink, making puck control inconsistent and difficult. That happened even as the game was postponed seven hours, from 1 p.m. to 8 p.m., because of concerns about precipitation.

Delays could strike this year’s event as well. Though the weather is scheduled to cooperate — game-time temperatures are projected to be in the mid- to high-30s — the glare from the distant winter sun forced some players to make adjustments during practices on the ice Wednesday afternoon.

Right wing Joel Ward wore large inverted triangles of eye black on his cheeks, while defenseman Karl Alzner wore sunglasses for the hour-plus on the ice and was trying to see whether league officials would permit him to do so for the game.

“It was pretty sunny, though, I must say,” Ward said. “I was considering taking the [sunglasses] approach as well. … He was in cruise control out there, so it looked like it was actually helping him out, but again, I think I might have to stick to this.”

Capitals coach Barry Trotz, participating in his first outdoor game, joked that the only adjustment he’d consider making is to wear a hat. His counterpart, Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville, has been a part of two outdoor games — including the Winter Classic at Wrigley Field in 2009, when Chicago lost to Detroit.

“We’re definitely fortunate as an organization and a team to get a chance to play in more than one outdoor game,” Quenneville said. “The setting, the opportunity, the thrill — just being in that fresh air environment is second to none.”

After the Winter Classic in 2001, Laich regretted minimizing the significance of the event and spending so much time focusing on making it just one of 82 games on the regular-season schedule. This time, he allowed himself to enjoy the circumstance a little more, and he even joined his father, Harold, for a skate on the rink Wednesday following the Capitals‘ practice.

It reminded him of those younger days, when hopes were high, dreams were big and excitement could not be restrained.

“You look up and there’s a sky above you,” Laich said. “That’s really the coolest thing.”

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