Hamilton, ON (WGR 550) – As I go through this article, I’ll try to bring you some of the sights from Saturday’s practice for the Buffalo Sabres from the Heritage Classic in Hamilton, Ontario.
Yes, it was very windy and very cold, but it was so much fun to watch, and so much fun for the players to be on the ice both for practice and then with their families.
Just to get a little business out of the way first.
Rasmus Asplund was back at practice and will play Sunday against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Casey Fitzgerald did not practice, which means Mark Pysyk will take his place. Craig Anderson will be in goal.
Sabres head coach Don Granato has been involved in one NHL outdoor game, but the novelty never wears off for coaches and players.
“When you walk off, it really hits you after you had that practice and had that experience being outside again playing hockey,” Granato said following Saturday's session.
From where I was standing on the glass, the ice looked to be in great shape. Granato confirmed that after practice.
“The ice was exceptional," he said. "They’ve done a tremendous job on the ice, and the atmosphere was fun just to watch our guys have fun.”
Saturday's practice wasn’t about anything but getting used to being outside with the conditions.
“We wanted to get the guys up and down the rink," Granato said. "We had them even switch ends a couple of times. There’s some shadows out there, and the wind is really different going one direction versus the other.”
Bills coach Sean McDermott can really speak to how much wind can be a factor in a football game, but hockey coaches usually don’t have to worry about it. In the past, if it’s windy, the teams will switch ends midway through the third period to make sure each team has the wind the same amount.
“It’s a factor, there’s no question," Granato said. "If the wind is like today, there’s a dramatic difference in how you have to execute. Even the way our guys were snapping it around, it’s different velocity on a puck, and the wind can push it a little bit.”
Casey Mittelstadt knows they have to find a way to deal with it, because it was a huge factor in practice.
“One of the ways you’re going down wind, and one of the ways you’re going into the wind. I think that was the biggest thing that I noticed," Mittelstadt said following practice. "The wind starts blowing the puck and blowing your stick around a little bit.”
Everybody was out for the team picture on Saturday, including guys out for the season like goalie Malcolm Subban and forward Drake Caggiula.
For some of the Sabres' young players, being the focus of a big NHL event has never happened for them. Rasmus Dahlin can’t wait for the attention.
“It’s really nice to play in front of a lot of people, and it’ll have a lot of media," the Sabres defenseman said. "You feel a little bit different between a regular season game and something special like this.
“It’s playing outside and playing in a huge stadium in front of so many fans, and just walking out to the ice and seeing how it is enjoying the whole experience.”
Dylan Cozens has played in big games for Team Canada at the World Junior Championship, but this is the NHL and the 21-year-old can’t wait.
“Just thinking about how many people are going to be in the those stands and the rivalry we have with the Leafs, it’s going to be a fun game. We’re all just super excited for it to start,” Cozens said following practice.
Cozens says he’s not real worried about the cold, because he’s used to that growing up in the Yukon.
Anderson has been involved in a few outdoor games over the years. He says practice brought back some memories.
“The wind’s blowing, you’re cold, you’re all bundled up. Just the pure joy of hockey takes over,” Anderson said after Saturday's skate.
Goaltenders don’t usually see pucks coming at them in natural light. Anderson knows that will be a challenge.
“It’s different. You get a lot of reflection off the sun, but as the sun goes down, you do get to that artificial light. But the biggest visual change is no stands on the glass," Anderson said. "In a regular game, you’ve got the fans right on the glass filling in that gap. There’s a big range to where the glass and the stands are, and you get that grey or white area, which can be tricky at times.”
Anderson's best memory of playing outdoors was while playing with the Ottawa Senators.
“It was super cold in Ottawa, but just the energy of the fans, I think everyone was 25 beers deep, so no one felt the cold," Anderson joked. "But the energy of the fans was just epic.”
Mittelstadt grew up in Minnesota, so he’s played plenty of hockey out in the cold. On Dec. 29, 2017, Mittelstadt played an outdoor game in Orchard Park for Team USA when they faced Canada in a blizzard at the World Junior Championship. Mittelstadt had three assists to lead the U.S. to a 4-3 shootout win.
“The game at the Bills stadium was so fun, and it was a great setting," Mittelstadt said of the experience. "The whole situation was perfect with the snowfall, and that was the most fun game I’ve ever played in.”
Mittelstadt said he was freezing at the beginning of the game, but he said you forget about it and you’re not cold anymore.
Join Brian Koziol for pregame coverage on WGR starting Sunday at 3 p.m. ET. Dan Dunleavy and Rob Ray will have all the action around 4:20 p.m. ET, while I’ll be rink side with Pat Malacaro in Hamilton talking about what we see up close from the field.