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Kings, Ducks will play a kids game at Dodger Stadium

Many hockey players began their love of the sport on outdoor rinks or frozen ponds. NHL veterans are excited about this event.

January 24, 2014|By Lisa Dillman and Lance Pugmire
  • Center Anze Kopitar joins the Kings as they skate for the first time on the ice rink at Dodger Stadium on Friday night.
Center Anze Kopitar joins the Kings as they skate for the first time on the… (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)

Ducks Coach Bruce Boudreau played his outdoor hockey under the lights, Kings Coach Darryl Sutter under the stars.

Growing up in Finland, Ducks center Saku Koivu played not on Golden Pond, but on frozen swamps. Kings center Mike Richards spent almost every winter day skating up and down the outdoor community center rink run by his parents in Kenora, Ontario.

No matter if they were from Canada or Europe, in an urban center or a rural area, their shared childhood experience was outdoor hockey.

In a roundabout way, for player and coach, all those memories will merge Saturday in the most unlikely of venues, Dodger Stadium. For highly paid and occasionally jaded professionals, the excitement level for the NHL's Stadium Series game between the Ducks and Kings is genuine and palpable.

"You'd play with your winter shoes on," Koivu said. "After school, you drop your bag and know there'd be a lot of kids playing. When you think about it, that's what hockey is all about, at its purest.

"There was no pressure. You were just out there having fun, pretending you're somebody in the NHL or the top Finnish league. Now playing in an outdoor game at Dodger Stadium, it's a big step for the kid from Finland."

It's a big step for kids from a lot of different places. Long before the phrase "polar vortex" became part of the vernacular, Koivu played in the coldest outdoor NHL game, at Edmonton's Commonwealth Stadium in 2003, when he was with the Montreal Canadiens. Kings center Jarret Stoll was with the Oilers and had an assist in that game, played in temperatures of minus-18.

"You'd grab the puck and by the blue line, you'd have to pass because your eyes were watering so bad, you couldn't see anymore," Koivu said. "The heaters on the bench were so hot you wanted to get back out there, but it was so cold."

For Richards, playing an official NHL game in a baseball stadium is nothing new. In 2010, he played for the Flyers at Fenway Park against the Boston Bruins. Richards was born and raised in Kenora, a small community and home of the 1907 Stanley Cup champion Kenora Thistles, an amateur team.

He learned how to skate as most kids did, assisted by his father, and helped flood the rink with his dad and his brothers.

"Obviously, it'll be a little bit different on Saturday, but we're still outdoors and still that same feeling," Richards said.

Kenora is bitterly cold in the winter. Playing outdoors in unseasonably nice January weather is a significant temperature improvement.

"We would go out for 20 minutes and freeze and come back in and warm up and go back out again," Richards said. "A lot of my childhood was outdoors at that rink and it was pretty special."

Ducks star Corey Perry, the league's most valuable player in 2011, remembered how hard it was to take a break from playing hockey to go inside and eat dinner.

"Dad had the rink in the backyard, with the boards and the wired fence above it for glass," Perry said. "Those are times you remember, being out there early in the morning and being called in after school for dinner, with me and my brother not wanting to leave the ice."

Mathieu Perreault of the Ducks said long hours outdoors helped shape his game.

"That's how you develop your skills," he said. "Because when you're outside, there's no goalie. You don't shoot pucks, try to skate around them, make plays, learn how to pass.

"It develops your sense and skills, for sure. I know that's how I got mine. There'd be nets, so you can't shoot it up in the air, you have to stick-handle and slide it. Most of the times, you'd have 15 to 20 people on the ice."

For the likes of Sutter and Boudreau, there were other challenges in their formative years on the ice outdoors. They are of the same generation, as the 59-year-old Boudreau is four years old than Sutter.

Sutter and his brothers couldn't play hockey until they finished their chores around the farm, which included milking the cows. Boudreau helped his dad flood the rink with a green garden hose.

"I'd come home from school and there was no delaying getting home," Boudreau said. "You'd get the skates on and we'd play till supper. I was lucky enough to have lights in my backyard and we'd play again. If we didn't have the lights going, we find somebody that did have the lights.

"That's all we did because there were only three channels on TV. It wasn't exactly like, 'Let's stay in and play video games and watch TV.' It was like, 'Let's go outside and play hockey.'"

The Sutter kids had to get creative on the family farm in Viking, Alberta.

"We skated mostly at night and we needed the moon for that," Sutter said. "The moon was a great source of light. Because of how much snow we had, pucks would be lost in the snow and you'd have to go find them.

"We played with rubber balls, whatever we had. A lot of times you didn't have a goalie. It was just getting it between the boots."

The spring thaw had its perils, according to Sutter, noting that if he or his brothers left their sticks lying out there, they would sink to the bottom of the slough — and be lost.

"I remember in the summer looking in the slough trying to find your sticks," said Sutter, who recalled a time when a local welder made the boys a scraper to clear the ice.

"One year, we left it out one spring," said Sutter, "and it went to the bottom and we never did find it. Every time I drive by there and that's like 40 years ago, so I know that scraper is in there. That scraper should be in the Hall of Fame. A lot of NHL games came out of that scraper."

lisa.dillman@latimes.com

lance.pugmire@latimes.com

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