Written By: Mark “The Hard Hitter” Ritter
The day began with a 4:00 a.m. wake up call; or in my case, a not so gentle nudge from my fiance.
Given the current security restrictions at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport it was important for us to get there early so we could be frisked by the good people of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Who, to their credit, were both thorough and gentle, all at the same time.
With the plane on time and the benefit of adrenaline rolling through my blood, we boarded the plane and promptly took off en route to Boston and the Winter Classic at Fenway park.
Upon arrival, I immediately make my way to historic Fenway Park to get my media credentials. It’s an easy process: a quick check of your ID and a photo and you are on your way.
With media pass in hand, I make my way to Fenway. Security greets me; a quick look at the pass and I am on my way in. The first thing I notice is that Fenway, unlike many of the stadiums we attend these days, has a sense of history, nostalgia and, to some extent, a feel of the ghosts of past players throughout the complex.
Fenway is old, but its roots run deep, as do its traditions. Most of the ball park is slathered in layers of green and, while many new additions and upgrades have been made recently, you can still sense just how antique this ballpark is.
Once in the ballpark you feel a real sense of belonging and tradition. This is the home of the Boston Red Sox; only this time, things are very different at field level.
Throughout the ballpark there are numerous banners with the familiar “Bridgestone Winter Classic” logo. An enormous amount of effort has gone into turning this ballpark into a make-shift hockey rink, at least for one day.
Hung from the top of the green monster are massive Canadian and American flags. These were later taken down, but by all accounts, will likely be unveiled on January First.
Just under the Budweiser sign and alongside the honored numbers of Red Sox rosters past, now sit the honored numbers of the Boston Bruins. Including Bobby Orr’s number four, amongst others.
Clearly every effort is being made to make Fenway into an NHL friendly venue. Boston Bruins and Philadelphia Flyers emblems are pasted along the green monster, with the Winter Classic and NHL logos also in sight.
The dugouts, once tattooed with the Boston Red Sox logo, now sport the familiar Boston Bruins, NHL and Winter Classic logos. No effort was made to take down the all-too-familiar “Be Alert: Foul Balls and Bats Hurt” signs along the baselines, but that only adds to the charm of the event.
Of course, the most distinctive change to Fenway is the ice rink in the middle of the field. The rink is 200 by 90, just like every other NHL rink, but every NHL fan knows just how special it is.
Much like Christmas snow, the Winter Classic ice comes but once a year (at least up to this point). A massive Bridgestone Winter Classic logo occupies the centre of the rink with various sponsorship logos scattered about. Along the boards there are a number of familiar sponsorship logos including, but not limited to, Bud Light, Reebok and McDonald’s, among others.
At around 2:30 p.m., I am given the opportunity of a lifetime. You see, one of the perks of having your media credential is an invitation to skate on the ice with some Bruins and Flyers alumni players.
Admittedly, I am not the best skater in the world, but despite my shortcomings, I laced up my skates and took to the ice. Numerous media members littered the ice with their presence. But my eyes were drawn to the likes of Flyers icons Dave “The Hammer” Schultz and Joe Watson and Bruins Legends Ken Hodge and Derek Sanderson, all of whom graced us with their presence on the ice.
It was a surreal feeling to be on the ice with arguably four of the most influential players of the '70s. I mean, how many people get to skate alongside an NHL legend, let alone four of them?
The thing that really got to me was that all four players were grinning from ear to ear. You see, even NHL players, as important and accomplished as they were, see the Winter Classic as a unique, once in a lifetime opportunity. And that extends to being given the chance to skate on the ice.
Hodge brought along his five year old grandson, who will probably look back on the event someday as one of the most memorable moments of his life.
All four stopped with media members to take pictures and talk a little puck, every one of them equally appreciative just to be there and to take part in the NHL’s premiere event.
After the skate, which lasted the better part of an hour, the media were able to catch up with Hodge, Watson, Sanderson, Schultz and, another Bruins’ legend, John McKenzie.
Hodge, Sanderson and McKenzie all played alongside the great Bobby Orr. Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Joe Watson called Orr “the greatest player that ever laced up the skates” during the Alumni Roundtable discussion. There wasn’t a player on the panel that didn’t agree with him.
Watson described Orr as one of the NHL’s toughest players, illustrating his point with a story about Orr hammering former Montreal Canadien Ted Harris. “Harris was no slouch...Bobby Orr laid him out”.
Said Sanderson of Orr, “Bobby could fight, he wasn’t afraid of nobody”. Schultz told the story of when he dropped the gloves with Orr; “I was quite shocked”, said Schultz, all the while remaining extremely respectful to number four.
Watson had some kind words for his former teammate, Dave Schultz. “Schultzee gave us courage”. On the subject of legendary Flyers netminder Bernie Parent, Watson said, “Parent was our savior’.
The entire roundtable discussion was an interesting dynamic. I mean, here we are listening to five players that seemingly hated each other on the ice, now talking to one another with the utmost respect and admiration. Which led me to ask this question of the panel:
“Despite being foes on the ice it looks as if you guys have become amicable over the years. There was a lot of respect on the ice when you guys played; do you feel that today’s players have that same level of respect or do you feel the Instigator rule has taken that away?”
Boston Bruins legend Derek Sanderson led the response:
“I think it’s taken it away, I agree with you. I think we have this respect, it’s well grounded, from Pee-Wee on up. You played, you were tough, you don’t talk, you did what you did, your teammates were the most important thing and I don’t know if they do that today. Today, I see them at center ice, in the warm up it’s like a social event, it’s like a church social...”
Added Ken Hodge: “you have to remember also, there’s thirty teams in the game today. There’s a lot more player movement then there was when we played the game."
Dave Shultz added his two cents, stating: “You have all these agents, and all these agents probably represent 40-50 players and the agents probably have a big party in the summertime and they all get together and they are all buddy-buddy, and that’s just the way it is...”
One thing all these players shared was a passion for the game, a passion for their teams (Flyers and Bruins), and a genuine respect for one another.
Clearly, these legends feel the NHL is lacking in the rivalry department; but, as they lamented, it’s tough to have the kind of rivalries that the Flyers and Bruins had in the 1970’s when there are now thirty teams, many of whom hardly play each other from season to season.
The best quote of the day belonged to Joe Watson who said something that rings true, no matter how old you are or what you do in life. “Anybody can lose, it takes a special person to win”.
Words to live by. And, on that note, I will conclude my coverage of the Bridgestone Winter Classic for today.
Check back with me tomorrow, when I will bring you the scoop from the NHL’s Chief Operating Officer, John Collins, on future Winter Classic venues, the process teams are asked to go through and the possibilities of a Winter Classic down South.
Until next time,
Written By: Mark “The Hard Hitter” Ritter