Lindy Ruff likes to say his tiny Alberta community was so small that it only had one town sign, a side that read "Welcome to Warburg," and another that read, "You're leaving Warburg." He was raised in a farm town that had about 430 residents, depending on who shuffled home for the holidays.
Ruff grew up playing hockey the way it originated, on outdoor rinks. One was about a half-acre and made from dug-out land near his home. He played shinny in ditches along railroad tracks. He skated on frozen streets ignored by plows and packed with ice until the townsfolk put their minds and their money together.
And, together, they built heaven.
"I never played on a covered rink until I was 13, when we finally had enough walkathons in our little town. It's a true story," Ruff said. "People would sponsor 5 cents a mile. Four years in a row, I think, we walked 20 miles to raise money to put a roof over the arena. I was actually in there to help put the boards up. We got it covered."
The Buffalo Sabres coach will be behind the bench today for the mother of outdoor games. The Sabres and Pittsburgh Penguins are expected to play before the largest crowd ever to see an NHL game when the puck drops for the Winter Classic, aka the Ice Bowl, before 73,000 fans in Ralph Wilson Stadium.
Let's not kid ourselves. This event is a made-for-television spectacle before rabid Western New Yorkers who would get behind anything if it meant portraying Buffalo in a positive light. It's a gimmick, a means for the NHL to stuff its pockets while entertaining North America with three hours of Sidney Crosby in a stadium filled with lunatics.
The game itself matters plenty to the two teams playing. The Sabres and Penguins already are locked in tight battles in the Eastern Conference. Both teams could use the two points whether the game was played at Ralph Wilson Stadium or Flip Wilson's backyard. For everybody else, though, it reaches the core of something else.
You couldn't find a player whose love for the game isn't linked to the outdoors. How many times were you in the driveway, announcing the game with a ball on your stick, imagining you were Gilbert Perreault? How many garage windows did you break? Too many. But how much fun did you have? Endless.
It doesn't matter where you're from, how much you played or what level you reached. In most cases, it began with a patch of ice, hand-me-down skates and a stick. For all the fame and fortune players enjoy nowadays, their fondest memories are those from their childhood, when hockey meant nothing and at the same time meant everything.
Everyone has a story.
Tim Connolly taught himself to dangle by faking out a tree (nicknamed "Jerry" after King Kong Korab) in the middle of his backyard rink. Derek Roy's routine outside Ottawa called for two hours of outdoor hockey in the morning, lunch, two hours in the afternoon, dinner, two hours in the evening, bed. Ex-Sabres coach Ted Nolan often talked about building his rink, bucket by bucket, with well water from the Garden River Reserve.
The most famous outdoor rink belonged to Walter Gretzky, who watched his son become the greatest player in NHL history, with all apologies to Bobby Orr. The stories about tireless Wayne Gretzky practicing behind his house in Brantford, Ontario, have become part of Canadian folklore.
"At the heart of every NHL player is a kid who grew up either playing on an outdoor rink or playing street hockey outside in the winter," Gretzky said last week via e-mail. "I remember what the outdoor games were like for us as kids. And I'm sure that every one of those players in that game [today] will at some point be taken back in their memory to their childhood.
"And don't think that those memories will be limited to the players on the ice. Many of the fans will also be transported back to their youth and playing in those games. That's what makes games like this so appealing -- we can all go back to being kids again."
And in one case, go back to watching kids again.
Henry Staal raised his four sons on a Canadian sod farm, much the way Leeson Ruff raised Lindy and his brothers. Every year, he cut out a 50-by-100-foot section of the land behind his house in Thunder Bay, Ontario, filled it with water and set the boys free with no end in sight.
Eric Staal won the Stanley Cup with Carolina two years ago. Marc is a rookie this season with the New York Rangers. Jordan will be playing between the 16-yard lines for the Penguins today at The Ralph. All were first-round picks. The fourth son, Jared, a first-round pick in the Ontario Hockey League, is on track to join his brothers in the NHL.
They were just like Ruff, just like Gretzky. And just like you.
"When they played, there weren't 70,000 people watching," Henry Staal said by telephone. "There weren't even seven. It's nice to see, with these guys playing in these cookie-cutter arenas. It brings it back to a level that people can relate to more. They're playing outside. Just drop the puck, five a side, away you go."e-mail: email@example.com