Outdoor hockey is nothing new for Wayne Gretzky and most NHL players.
While it was an unseasonably warm day for late December in St. Louis with temperatures hovering around 50 degrees during the Blues-Blackhawks alumni game at Busch Stadium on Saturday, Gretzky recalled the frigid days when he learned the skills that turned him into the greatest hockey player in NHL history.
“I’d say most of the guys who played today kind of grew up in that sort of era,” Gretzky said when asked about the outdoor hockey rinks most NHL players remember from their youth. “We grew up on outdoor rinks and ponds and frozen lakes and backyards. That’s how we started playing the game of hockey.
“We weren’t thrown into beautiful warm artificial ice arenas when we were kids. We were thrown out to the 30-below-zero and wearing a toque and a scarf and freezing and our hands numb and our feet numb when we came in. That’s what’s wonderful and what makes the game great.”
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No one got frostbite Saturday but there were some sore bodies in the Blues dressing room, which during the summer is the Cardinals clubhouse. The only ice in there was keeping the beer cold.
“You think you’re doing OK, you’re out and you’re skating with the guys and you feel good,” Brett Hull said. “Then you get out there and it was just ... every stride was agony. It was so fun to be with them and to be out there with the rest of the guys, not only from the era you played with but the future eras when you were gone and the ones before you.”
Hull and the Blues alumni had so much fun getting together and telling stories about the old days that it may have been just as special as the game itself.
“The fun part is being in the locker room, chit-chatting and having fun,” said Hull, who was joined by his father, Hall of Famer Bobby Hull. “We get older, the bodies change but the tongue gets razor sharp. You even have better lines now than when you played, so it’s a lot of fun.”
Chris Pronger, now 42, was forced to retire because of post-concussion symptoms and an eye injury. His last NHL game was with the Philadelphia Flyers in 2011 and he has since moved to St. Louis.
“A little butterflies before, just getting back out and wondering how you’re going to feel,” Pronger said of his return to the ice. “Once the game starts, you’re just kind of playing the game. You fall into your old habits and read and react, things like that.
“It’s like riding a bike, it takes a little while and you’re going a little slower, but overall it’s pretty good.”