(February 26, 2016) – I didn’t get to grow up with an outdoor ice hockey rink near me. There were plenty of roller hockey rinks around, but you had to go inside to get on the ice in south Florida. I did finally get to experience what it’s like to play hockey outside in the cold just over a year ago, after I did something no one else has ever done: I went to my bosses at FOX Sports Florida to request to go on the Panthers' road trip to Winnipeg, Manitoba, in mid-January. 

Yes, I’m THAT hockey-crazy.

I got to experience playing hockey on outdoor neighborhood rinks and skate at The Forks in -15°F (about -25°C) weather over the course of three days. A longtime friend of mine (who also grew up in south Florida), Cory, was finishing up getting his doctorate while working at the University of Manitoba, and he took a few days off ahead of the Panthers visit to the MTS Centre so that we could experience the beauty of outdoor hockey…in between trips to stand under heat lamps and warm up.

And what an experience it was.

Despite my wind-chapped face, despite the near-numbness of fingers and toes, despite even the frozen nose hairs (which is by far the strangest experience, let me tell you), it was incredible. There’s something magical about hockey outside, even when it’s broken down to the simplicity of passing a puck back and forth while skating for a kilometer or more down a well-plowed frozen river. 

Starting in late-2003, the NHL has been trying to capture that magic.

It was in November of 2003 when the NHL debuted the Heritage Classic, an outdoor, regular season game between the host Edmonton Oilers and the visiting Montreal Canadiens. In 2008, the NHL held the first Winter Classic in Buffalo, and it quickly became an annual (except for 2013…but let’s not talk about that here) outdoor showcase held in a traditional American hockey market.

With the popularity of the Winter Classic (and the every-few-years Heritage Classic) as a guide, the NHL began adding more outdoor games to its annual schedule with the Stadium Series. A whopping FOUR Stadium Series games were held in its first year, as Yankee Stadium, Soldier Field and Dodger Stadium all hosted games in early 2014. The Dodger Stadium matchup between the Anaheim Ducks and the host Los Angeles Kings was particularly interesting, given that L.A. isn’t a typical wintery-weather host city like the others had all been (save for the preseason game held in Las Vegas two decades prior).

While I didn’t have the experience of playing outdoor ice hockey until 2015, I’ve had the privilege of attending two of the NHL’s outdoor games. In 2010, I made the trek up to Boston for the Flyers and Bruins at Fenway Park. I was working at WCTV in Tallahassee, Florida, at the time, and worked until about 11:45 p.m. on New Year’s Eve. With puck drop scheduled for early in the afternoon, about 13 hours later, I already had my car loaded up with my cold weather clothes to change into (as well as a suitcase) and quickly started the three-hour drive to Jacksonville International Airport for a very early flight. I connected through JFK (where I met up with my friend, Joe) and we went along to Boston. Landing just a couple of hours before game time, we hurried to the stadium and began to take in the incredible atmosphere.

The area around Fenway Park was filled with hockey fans and hockey activities. Joe, who made the incredibly bold decision to wear his New York Yankees jacket, drew “comments” from Bruins fans and Flyers fans alike. Ahead of the start, we headed to our seats: third row from the field, even with third base (eBay can be a wonderful thing some times).

Between the pageantry of Bobby Clarke and Bobby Orr at center ice pregame and the incredible game we witnessed, it was a perfect setting. The fact that the nearly-40,000 fans in attendance would chant dueling “Let’s Go Flyers!/Let’s Go Bruins!” chants, only to switch to a united “Yankees Suck!” chant after about 20 seconds was the cherry on top (Joe loved that, by the way).

Having no exposure to the joys of playing pond hockey or skating on a frozen river as a kid did not matter: I was in love with the NHL’s outdoor games.

By the end of that year, I was working at WTVA in Tupelo, Mississippi, an NBC affiliate. I went to my News Director months ahead of time and asked if I could put in for credentials at the NHL Winter Classic in Pittsburgh that year, that I felt it would be a great way to not only plug some of WTVA’s non-news programming, but also expose the northeast Mississippi area to a sport that they may not be as familiar with in a fun way. When I also offered to pay for my own airfare, meals and hotel stay, I was allowed to go (amazing how that works)!

I flew up to Pittsburgh on December 30th, two days ahead of the showdown between the Penguins and Washington Capitals. On New Year’s Eve, I spent the day at and around Heinz Field, loaded with a camera, microphone, extra XLR cable, giant-and-unnecessarily-heavy laptop in an equally-unnecessarily-heavy case, tripod, makeup bag (it’s TV…makeup is always involved), notepads, pens and my own personal laptop (and, yes, I personally lugged all of that around). I got to watch the teams practice and conduct interviews with players (Washington’s Jason Chimera was the first player I interviewed) and the fans enjoying the festivities.

While I was editing video upstairs in the press box that night, I was treated to Hinder’s sound check and run-through on the field below.

That Winter Classic, you may remember, was hindered (pun partially intended) by both rain and an injury to Sidney Crosby. Unlike the year before, when I was a mere 10 feet from the field at Fenway, I was positioned upstairs – and inside – for this one.

The atmosphere was different, as it always is in a press box. Despite the glass separating us from the elements and the fans, the noise and cheers still pumped through the room. It was a totally separate experience from the year before; I was both in the moment, and yet both literally and figuratively removed from it, taking in the event as a spectator of the spectators.

Both experiences were incredible. Both experiences were unforgettable. And that’s what the NHL’s outdoor series are all about.

Should the NHL spread the love around more than it does? Sure. Canadian cities that haven’t experienced a Heritage Classic should be involved in outdoor games. American cities like St. Louis, Nashville and Tampa (and many others) all deserve to give their fans the same experiences I had. But for those who say that the experience is watered down or is no longer special because the NHL now takes a few games outside each season are missing the point.

When the NHL fully realized what it had on its hands in 2008 in snowy Buffalo, sure it became a big ratings and sponsorship event. But adding more and more games allows for the league’s fans to all get a taste.

While Chicago and Boston have each played in a small handful of these games already (as have the Rangers), I don’t think that impacts whether or not people in St. Louis would sell out Busch Stadium to see the Blues play or whether or not Winnipeggers would brave frigid temperatures to bring the Whiteout to a Jets game at Investors Group Field. And you can’t tell me that the spectacle of a Panthers game at Marlins Park – with the Miami skyline and ocean in the background – wouldn’t draw your attention (and your vacation days/dollars).

I don’t want to see the NHL start holding 30 outdoor games a year, and I’m not lobbying for that. What I do want, though, is for every hockey fan to be able to get the experience that I had in 2010. Every fan deserves to be able to get at least a taste of that magic, even if their nearest frozen pond is 1,000 miles away.