Hockey at Fenway sets stage for memorable game

When a group of Bruins legends gathered to christen the "Rink of Dreams" at Fenway Park, Derek Sanderson grabbed a seat on the bench, took a deep breath and asked his former teammate Bobby Orr just one question.

"So this is it for the warmth factor, huh Bobby?"

The allure of the Winter Classic is a two-fold novelty act that the National Hockey League has capitalized on perfectly. The sport was born on the frozen lakes and ponds of the past. But like last year’s event at Wrigley Field the venue itself, not the weather, is expected to steal the spotlight

"It (Fenway) is an iconic, landmark venue," said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. "It has seen many, many types of events over the years. In 1967, I think, I was here for a ‘Eugene McCarthy for President’ rally."

"So it’s now time for a hockey game to take place in this venerable, special place."

The old ballpark on Yawkey Way is nearing its 100th birthday and defines the surrounding community unlike any other in professional sports. And while this cathedral has seen more facelifts than Joan Rivers over the last eight years, with the hopes of modernizing the venue for another century, its history, its tradition and the region’s affection for a 37-foot wall in left field reign supreme.

"I’m just thrilled to be a part of an event like this," marveled Orr as he took one of the first laps around the ice surface. "Growing up, we did most of our playing outside. This is where we felt like we learned the game."

That’s not the case for many players who will actually hit the ice on New Year’s Day. The Bruins’ Shawn Thornton admits to dabbling in it as a child, whereas teammate Milan Lucic, a Vancouver native, played in organized leagues and not on the frozen ponds of yesteryear. And while there are plenty of excuses out there from the growth of youth sports to video games and the Internet, the fact is pond hockey has gone the way of the sandlot, becoming the niche and not the norm.

"I think it’s going to be a great event," Lucic noted upon getting his first glance of the ballpark from ice level last week. "From the way it all turned out, it just looks awesome. It looks like something you want to be a part of."

There will surely be a lot of "Do you remember your first time?" stories this week. That first time players stepped foot on a frozen pond. The first time they were at Fenway Park. The first time the NHL realized it could take a regular-season game and turn it into the league’s premiere destination event.

"The whole ambiance around the building is beginning to grow already," said Mike Milbury, a former Bruins player who was behind the bench the last time the B’s reached the Stanley Cup Final in 1990. "Both players and fans are looking at this as a great chance, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

That once-in-a-lifetime opportunity isn’t about what happens over 60 minutes of hockey Friday afternoon, but a chance to celebrate the sport, to tell stories and create a new memory or two in the process.

There will be plenty of stories told about the "Big Bad Bruins" and the "Broad Street Bullies" of the 1970s, while the NHL continues playing its faux-Switzerland stance on fighting and secretly wishing for the gloves to come off within the first 60 seconds of play.

And then there’s the story of Flyers coach Peter Laviolette, a native of Franklin, Mass., who bounced around the Bruins organization with stints as a player and a coach in the ’90s, and who met his wife Kristen while she was working at the Delta Airlines counter at nearby Logan International Airport.

Now Laviolette is trying to resurrect a struggling hockey club that was expected to compete in the Eastern Conference. Then again, the novelty of an event like the Winter Classic could be exactly what the Flyers need.

"What better way to get back to your roots and your childhood than playing an outdoor game in front of 35,000 people?" asked defenseman Chris Pronger.

"Hopefully the fun will already be back in our game before then, but it would definitely be a step ahead and a step in the right direction as well."

But, to his defensive counterpart, Zdeno Chara, who towers over opponents like the looming Green Monster in left field, fun isn’t part of the equation. It’s a matter of winning the game and getting those two crucial points in the standings.

"When I was a kid playing outdoors it was totally different," Chara said. "You just cruise around and have a lot of fun with your neighborhood buddies."

"It was totally relaxed. This is business."

— Jake Duhaime, Inside Hockey