The great outdoors

TERRY JONES, EDMONTON SUN

, Last Updated: 12:24 PM ET

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Lindy Ruff didn't let the 70,000-plus seats or the NHL rink sitting in the middle of an NFL stadium fool him.

He knows a place to play pond hockey when he sees one.

"About half way through practice I realized we had to get rid of the last couple of drills and let them play a little pond hockey for 10 minutes.' " said the longest tenured coach in the NHL at 11 seasons with the Buffalo Sabres.

"It was the right thing to do. They were having such a great time. I can only imagine what it's going to be like for the game," he said of today's Winter Classic, the first outdoor regular-season game to be played in the United States.

"That was just awesome. It really was," raved Ruff. "It brings you back to your roots. It really felt like you could stay out there for a couple of hours, one of those where you could scrimmage all day long.

"You could see it in the players' faces. You could even see it in your faces," he said of the media watching practice from a snowbank beside the boards.

"I'm just telling you, it was so cool to be out there. I mean, I thought it was unbelievable and I'm not even playing."

There's nothing like an outdoor hockey game to turn a bunch of highly paid pro players back into a bunch of kids.

They were all like that yesterday on the outdoor rink, the Sabres skating out in their original uniforms with the buffalo over crossed swords logo and the Pittsburgh Penguins in those old powder blue duds they haven't worn since the '70s.

It was throwback stuff in a lot of different directions.

"I had a lot of fun out there. It was such a good time," said Ryan Miller, the Sabres netminder who played in the 'Cold War' outdoor game between Michigan and Michigan State, which filled a stadium the same size.

"All of the guys were having a lot of fun out there. It was a good time messing around. Practice was a lot more playful than it has been in a while. It was how it was when we were kids. Throwing tape balls. Screwing around. Pranking guys. Goofing off. It felt a lot more like that. It was a good day."

Even Sidney Crosby, who is still a kid but seldom sounds like one, was one this day.

"I grew up in the wintertime playing on ponds and lakes. We've all played outside at some point and had a great time doing it.

"I think it brings you back a bit when you're out there. I mean, this is a big stage and it's a big game, but at the same time, you don't get this chance very often so you want to enjoy it," said the sport's new superstar, who was one of the last Penguins off the ice.

"Like I said, it's a fun experience. You want to enjoy it. Who knows if we'll ever get the chance to do this again."

They were all like kids, but none more than Ruff, who played his pond hockey in Warburg, southwest of Edmonton.

"I never played in a covered rink until I was maybe 13. Our town was small enough that we played every town that was 1,000 people or less. So there was nobody that had covered rinks; it was all open rinks," he said of the place with a population of 430 when he was growing up.

"We had a farm so we had a dugout, which was frozen over. We could hardly wait until that froze because that was like a half-acre dugout. You'd put a steel net in one end, you had a rubber puck and you had four or five guys who played all day long. That was more fun than really going to the rink.

"Back then it was cold enough for most of the year you'd even skate in ditches. We skated in ditches along railway tracks.

"I put my skates on in my house and skated down the road to my rink. The road was frozen over. It was probably half a mile ... the road was so hard packed we would actually skate to the rink."

Ruff said he'd like to take the Sabres to Warburg the next time they play the Oilers.

"I would like to take my team to my town. That would a great thing for a little town. There's no stoplight in our town.

There's one sign that says 'Welcome to Warburg.' On the back it says 'You're leaving.' "

The thing you have to love about these games is the feelings they bring out about the game. It may be cold, but mostly it's warm and fuzzy.


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