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Starkey: Players' games formed on frozen ponds

| Sunday, Dec. 26, 2010

Blood in the snow banks.

That was a common sight when Phil Bourque and his friends played pick-up hockey -- shinny, as it's called -- on the 20-by-40 foot backyard rink his father and uncle built some 40 years ago in Chelmsford, Mass.

Snow banks served as boards. Anything served as nets. Games were lit by sun and moon, with the floodlights earning a second assist.

The competition was Game 7 quality.

"Somebody would always get hurt," recalled Bourque, a two-time Stanley Cup winner as a player and now the Penguins' radio analyst. "It was pretty wild. Lots of hitting, and we were always fighting."

Spirits were just as high in Sidney Crosby's hometown of Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia. Outdoor hockey season didn't last as long as it did up north in Quebec, but Crosby & Co. would find a pond or lake on which to play.

And they wouldn't let a little danger get in the way of a good game, either.

"I remember the ice cracking a few times," Crosby said.

Anybody fall through?

"If we played on a pond, maybe at times a foot might fall through, but it was only a couple of feet deep. Let's just say our parents were much happier when we played on the pond than the big lake."

Crosby laughed and added, "Something I'll always remember on the lake is the puck kind of going outside the area where we were playing and seeing a guy skating after it and all of a sudden stopping. You'd know then the ice was cracking, and you'd see him skate as hard as you'd ever seen just to get back to where we were playing."

Walk to any stall in the Penguins' dressing room, and you will encounter a man who can relate to Bourque's rink of dreams and Crosby's icy adventures. Outdoor hockey is a shared heritage among hockey players.

It is becoming a beloved tradition among NHL fans, too, in the form of the Winter Classic.

Once reserved for college football, New Year's Day has become a hockey day in the United States, for the simplest of reasons: The game is staged outdoors, where sports were meant to be played and where many of us spent our childhoods, back when pick-up games existed and Xbox did not.

The Winter Classic is, quite literally, cool -- though not as cool as Elk Point, Alberta, where Penguins forward Mark Letestu saw his family's garden magically morph into a miniature hockey rink on his fifth birthday.

"My dad flooded the garden, so I had my own outdoor rink as a little guy," Letestu says. "That was pretty special."

Approximately 1,050 miles away, in Grand Rapids, Minn., little Alex Goligoski was honing his considerable skating skills on a makeshift outdoor rink complete with a heating shack for between-periods breaks (periods being measured in hours, not minutes).

Similar stories, at similar times, were unfolding in places such as Magnitogorsk, Russia (Evgeni Malkin); Westland, Mich. (Chris Connor); Cleveland, Ohio (Mike Rupp); Belleville, Ontario (Matt Cooke); Laval, Quebec (Pascal Dupuis); and anywhere else where future Penguins roamed.

A common theme among the players is the memory of their fathers and other male relatives building rinks:

» Defenseman Deryk Engelland (Edmonton-born): "I got lucky, because we owned a marina on a lake, so my dad would take out the quad and plow out a spot as big as he wanted. We'd ride a bus to the lake with whoever was available to play."

» Forward Eric Godard (Vernon, British Columbia): "My dad made a rink in the backyard, and we always had a schedule for pick-up games. The rink was big and square, and you had like 50 people playing at once."

My favorite backyard rink story comes from the Bylsma family scrapbook. Penguins coach Dan Bylsma's father, Jay, converted his basement in Grand Haven, Mich., into a dressing room for his four boys, complete with locker stalls and an exterior wooden staircase that led to the ice.

Climbing those stairs was akin to what the Chicago Blackhawks did at old Chicago Stadium. Which is why the boys would exclaim "Here come the Hawks!" as they ascended. Often, they would battle under floodlights until 11 p.m.

Jay Bylsma told me that of all the memories from those days, it is the postgame scenes that are frozen in time.

"There was no talk of who'd won or who'd lost," he said. "We would just sit there in the basement, steam coming off our bodies, nobody saying a word. Just absorbing the moment."

Sounds like great advice for anyone watching what should be a bitterly contested Winter Classic between the Penguins and the Washington Capitals at Heinz Field on Saturday. The Pens-Caps alumni game, which precedes the main event, won't be a skate in the park, either. The way Bourque made it sound, nobody should be surprised if the geezer game produces some hurt feelings.

And some blood in the snow banks.

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