PRINCE GEORGE, B.C. – The Northern Capitals will get the rare opportunity to play a league game on outdoor, natural ice in January.
According to Director of Media Relations, Caleb Wilson, the Caps will play a weekend double-header against the Fraser Valley Rush on January 22nd and 23rd. One game will be played indoors, and one game will be played outside.
“This weekend is the most highly anticipated for our entire program,” said Wilson. “Many hours were spent by our volunteers to make this possible.”
For many of the players on the roster, this will be the first time playing a real game outside, even if it’s not their first time skating in the great outdoors.
The first game will be played in Vanderhoof on Saturday afternoon. The second game will be played at the Ernie Sam Memorial Arena on Sunday.
“We’ve had a lot of our players come from there. A lot of alumni and a lot of current players came from Vanderhoof.”
On the boys’ side, the U18 Cougars will play their outdoor game on Saturday, then they head indoors for a game in Fort St. James on Sunday.
Former Calgary Flames coach and NHL alumnus Jim Playfair grew up and played his amateur hockey in Fort St. James.
Cariboo Hockey has partnered with the communities of Vanderhoof, Fort St. James and the Nak’azdli Whut’en First Nation to make this annual event possible.
Wilson says a number of additions have been made to the Ernie Sam Memorial Arena over the years to make things more comfortable for players and spectators.
“We have a great relationship with the Nak’azdli Whut’en First Nation. They’ve done countless updates to that facility since our first Winter Classic. They put in dressing rooms with pot stoves for heat, and the players basically go straight out to the benches. They’ve extended the bleachers and extended the one side of the roof.”
With teams coming from the Lower Mainland, likely never playing hockey on an outdoor surface in their lives, Wilson says it’s always a treat to see the looks on the players’ faces when they come off the ice.
“To see the kids from the Lower Mainland say they’ve never played on outdoor ice their entire life, it’s really cool. I grew up with a rink in my front yard every year, but this is different. To hear them say what an experience that was, and how appreciative they are, to hear those words is pretty special.”
The weather for the inaugural Winter Classic in 2019 was unseasonably warm, and Wilson says they got the other end of the spectrum in 2020 with bitterly cold temperatures affecting the ice.
“Our GM, Trevor Sprague, was up there a week early, literally building the ice. They had to drill into the ice because pockets were forming and the ice was separating in different spots. We’ve had the worst of both scenarios, from warm to cold.”
Whether it’s minus 20 and snowing or plus 20 and sunny, Wilson says the attendance will be the same.
“The cold didn’t stop them last time. We were shoulder-to-shoulder in the media area in 2019. The parents come up, the families come up and they all have a great time. In the past, we had a bus company from Prince George shuttle fans to and from the rinks. It’ll probably be different this year with COVID-19, but we’re still a couple of months away, so hopefully, we’ll be ok.”
Wilson says the event gets a ton of local attention, and he’s hopeful that the 2022 Winter Classic will continue to showcase hockey in the north.
“It’s an event that people mark on their calendars. The more that we can continue to push northern talent, especially in the women’s program, this will be an event that we’re going to continue to push, and it inspires the young kids.”
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