AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. — As the ice is cleared of Colorado Avalanche and L.A. Kings players and families alike after a quick practice and skate around on Friday evening, the countdown for takeoff at the 2020 Stadium Series at the Air Force Academy is officially underway.
With less than 24 hours to go, the excitement among the Avs locker room is palpable.
“It’s just going to be a really cool experience, a unique experience,” Avalanche defenseman Ryan Graves said Friday after the team’s first and only practice on the ice at Falcon Stadium before the Stadium Series game.
“You won’t remember every game of the year but you’ll definitely remember this in 10 years.”
Graves, along with just about everyone in the renovated-for-hockey Air Force football locker room, has had the Feb. 15 matchup against the Kings circled on their respective calendars. For most, it’s not the first time they’ve skated in the great outdoors. But for many, it’s their first professional outdoor game under the bright lights of the National Hockey League.
“It’s going to be a cool experience,” added Graves. “This is my first real outdoor game — I played one in juniors but it was a little different. I’m looking forward to tomorrow, it’s going to be fun. It’s going to be a different experience for us. We’re always playing in stadiums, it’s kind of the same thing over and over again, but tomorrow’s going to be different. It’s going to be fun.”
Mikko Rantanen, like a few others, has never played professionally in an outdoor game. But like so many others in the NHL, he’s no stranger to playing in the elements.
“It’s really fun. It brings back memories from your childhood playing outside almost all winter,” added Ranaten. “It’s a lot of fun and we’re for sure going to enjoy it.”
Avs rookie defenseman Cale Makar played outdoors growing up, and he’s even played at the first ever outdoor game for the IIHF World Junior Championship in December of 2017 as a member of Team Canada. But the Stadium Series game with the Avalanche will be yet another memory to add to his incredible rookie season in the NHL.
“Just to see how it’s set up out there is pretty incredible and the ice is unreal,” Makar said after practice on Friday.
At the time of the Avs practice on Friday afternoon, it was a beautiful bluebird day in Colorado Springs. Hardly a cloud could be spotted in the sky — save for the scattering of a few thin, whispy Colorado cirrus clouds — and the thermometer read 36 degrees fahrenheit, though it felt warmer due to the relatively cloudless, sun-drenched sky. Some players opted for eye black while a few even wore sunglasses to protect from the reflection off the ice’s white surface in the mid-day peak of the sun.
“Obviously the ice conditions, we won’t know,” said Rantanen. “Today it was good and tomorrow is a night game so it will be a little bit colder and no sun so it should be good.”
Indeed, tomorrow, with the opening puck drop expected around 6 p.m. MT, the sun will have already set behind the towering Rocky Mountains — which are just a stone’s throw behind The Academy — and the game will be played under the bright lights of Falcon Stadium instead.
With the forecast predicted to be hovering right around 32 degrees fahrenheit at the start of the game and dropping as the contest moves along, ice conditions should be just fine. The last time the Avs hosted the Stadium Series game back in 2016 at Coors Field in downtown Denver, it was nearly 60 degrees. This time around, the weather will feel more akin to that of an outdoor hockey game.
“I heard it was pretty warm the last time it was played in Colorado but (this time) it’s a night game so it shouldn’t be a problem this time. Everybody is just going to enjoy it,” added Rantanen.
While the Avs were clear of their excitement for the outdoor spectacle, they remembered to remind themselves — and the media — that it is still an official NHL game and it counts toward the standings. It’ll be game No. 902 overall of the NHL regular season and the 57th for the Avalanche of the 2019-20 campaign. But pageantry aside, the Avs are still in a fight for the top spot in a log-jammed Western Conference, and coming out of the Stadium Series spectacle with a win and two points in the standings is still priority No. 1 for Colorado.
“Everybody’s really excited obviously, but after you walk in, after the anthems (and) your first shift, it’s a game of hockey,” Rantanen reminded the media. “We don’t think about it too much but obviously we’re really excited, probably more excited than a normal regular season game but we know it’s still a big game for us and we need those two points.
“It’s a big game…it’s a big two points no matter what, if we play here or at Pepsi Center. We just have to think about it like that.”
The outdoor game is a reminder of hockey’s deep roots and its strong relationship with the great outdoors. And while the Stadium Series is technically just another regular season game in the NHL, still, it is a reminder of hockey’s history and a celebration for the players and fans who share a love and bond over this great game. For the players on the outdoor ice sheet, the fans in the bleachers of the historic Falcon Stadium and everyone watching across the globe, it’ll undoubtedly be a special occasion.
“You can already feel how it’s going to be,” added Rantanen. “Everybody is so excited to play this game and it’s special because we get to do it in front of our own fans.
“I’m really excited. To play in front of that crowd — 50,000 people or something like that — it’s going to be special.”