BOSTON — The roots of hockey are firmly planted outdoors. Most New Englanders of a certain age learned to play the game on frozen ponds and outdoor rinks. Far from the lights of NHL arenas, the game was played in peaceful wooded settings where the only noise you could hear was the slap of the puck and the laughter of players.
That’s why outdoor hockey has become such a romantic annual event. On Saturday the UMaine Black Bears will wear an extra layer as they skate out onto the manmade pond at Fenway Park to face the Boston University Terriers.
It’s the third installment of Frozen Fenway and the second time the Black Bears have taken part in the tradition.
Two years ago Maine beat New Hampshire 3-2 in overtime, Brian Flynn getting the “walk-off” goal on a redirection of a Joey Diamond shot as the Bears came back from a two-goal deficit.
These outdoor games at iconic venues like Fenway are special for the fans and players who take part in them.
NESN analyst Colby Cohen said it was “bigger than the Beanpot” when his BU team beat rival Boston College in the first Frozen Fenway matchup. In that game David Warsofsky celebrated a goal with a David Ortiz-like swing of the stick, sending an imaginary ball over the Green Monster.
Center ice replaces center field every other year at Fenway in order to keep interest and demand high.
While outdoor games like the NHL’s Winter Classic are fun, there’s always a risk of cooking the golden goose.
We’ll see if the novelty wears off as the NHL plays its Stadium Series this year with games in Los Angeles, Chicago and two in New York. Those are in addition to the Heritage Classic in Vancouver and the Winter Classic that was played in Ann Arbor, Mich., last week.
Outdoor games are a big draw, but the real visual appeal to the casual fan is the venue. The snowy setting of more than 105,000 fans at the Big House was an irresistible draw on New Year’s Day.
It will be strange watching outdoor hockey amidst palm trees at Dodger Stadium later this month.
That’s why the NHL needs to keep finding new places to put these games. I’ve always said they need to think about building venues for the games, like a makeshift stadium in Central Park or the Rideau Canal in Ottawa.
Here in New England, there are few venues more iconic than Fenway and its Green Monster. Frozen Fenway lived up to its name last weekend as coaches, players and fans huddled to stay warm in the first doubleheader. It’s expected to be warmer Saturday.
There are plenty of Maine connections to the event.
The rink was built by Rink Specialists of Naples, a group that has been put to the test with Arctic temperatures, rain and a Nor’easter.
The new Monster Sled in center field was created by StackBox Structures of Scarborough. You may never get to slide into home plate at Fenway but you can slide toward the home bullpen thanks to this new manmade hill.
It all adds up to a setting you won’t see anywhere else. Merrimack Coach Mark Dennehy even joked that the starting lineup should come down the hill on a sled and be introduced as they slide onto the ice. It was clear that Dennehy was having a good time as his team skated at Fenway for the first time.
And it was clear that these outdoor games were still pretty special. Even if they aren’t as unique as they once were.
Tom Caron is studio host for Red Sox broadcasts on NESN. His column appears in the Press Herald on Tuesdays.