SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Dylan Strome was 11 years old when the Chicago Blackhawks played in their first outdoor game on Jan. 1, 2009, nor was he in the NHL full-time when they played outside for the fifth time on Jan. 2, 2017.
Similarly, Jake DeBrusk was 13 when the Boston Bruins played in their first NHL outdoor game on Jan. 1, 2010. He was in the Western Hockey League when Boston made its next venture outdoors six years later.
The 2019 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic between the Blackhawks and Bruins at Notre Dame Stadium on Tuesday (1 p.m. ET; NBC, SN, TVAS) features two franchises that combined will have appeared in nine NHL outdoor games in 10 years, but it’s players like Strome and DeBrusk, rookies to this experience, that make up the majority of the rosters.
Twenty-six of the 40 players expected to dress for the game at Notre Dame will be making their first appearance in an NHL outdoor game. Fourteen of them are 23 years old or younger. Twenty-one are 25 or younger, meaning many of them can say, as Chicago’s 23-year-old forward Dylan Sikura did, that they grew up watching the Winter Classic.
“They’re so excited about it,” said Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane, who is readying for his fourth Winter Classic and sixth NHL outdoor game. “It’s cool to see how they’ve kind of taken it all in and their reactions to everything.”
This Winter Classic is as much about turnover in these two Original Six franchises that have won the Stanley Cup a combined four times since 2010 than anything else.
For the Blackhawks, it’s almost unfathomable that they are in this position considering this is their sixth outdoor game and they’re two years removed from their previous one. Yet here they are with 16 players on their roster, 13 of which are expected to suit up Tuesday and will be new to the NHL outdoor game experience.
The Bruins, three years removed from playing an outdoor game, are in the same situation with 17 players on the roster, including 13 expected to dress Tuesday, who have never played in a game like this.
“I haven’t coached in it either,” said Jeremy Colliton, Chicago’s 33-year-old rookie coach who replaced Joel Quenneville on Nov. 6. “It’s fun. We’ve got a lot of young blood coming through and a lot of energy, and they’re going to be excited for the opportunity. I think that will carry over to our veteran guys who played in a few.”
Those veteran players, namely Kane, Jonathan Toews, Brent Seabrook, Duncan Keith and Chris Kunitz, who have already combined to play in 23 outdoor games, have been telling stories and offering up their advice to players who are happy to hear the tales and eager to heed the words.
“It’s special,” Blackhawks 23-year-old forward John Hayden said. “We’ve learned a lot from these older guys and they’ve told us some good stories about playing in outdoor games. There’s been a few of them for them, but they’re still excited to be here. It actually goes hand in hand with learning from these guys and trying to emulate what they’ve done.”
Bruins captain Zdeno Chara recalled being overwhelmed by the experience when he played in his first NHL outdoor game, the 2010 Winter Classic at Fenway Park, a 2-1 overtime win against the Philadelphia Flyers.
That same feeling has been passed on.
“I didn’t really realize how big of an event it was going to be until we got here and saw everything and how seriously they take it,” said Bruins forward Sean Kuraly, who played in an outdoor game in college with Miami (Ohio) against Notre Dame at Soldier Field in Chicago. “Just the scale of everything out there to the lengths they’ve gone, every detail getting covered. It’s the real deal.”
Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman offered a practical reason for why there will be so many NHL outdoor game rookies on the ice Tuesday.
“This is a young man’s league and it’s changing every year,” Bowman said.
To his point, 22 teenagers have played at least one NHL game this season.
“Some team’s 19-year-old players are their best players,” Bowman said. “When that happens, there’s obviously cause and effect and the guys that are moving out of the game are the older players. Teams are skewing younger and when that happens it’s also harder to keep teams together year after year. … It’s hard to keep a group of 12-15 guys together for more than one or two years. That’s just the way the League is going. You have to incorporate young players into the game.”
It’s not only young players who will be making their NHL outdoor game debuts, though.
Bruins forward Brad Marchand is 30 years old. Blackhawks goalie Cam Ward is 34. Jaroslav Halak, who will be the Bruins backup goalie to Tuukka Rask, is 33.
“Games like this, when you’re coming into the League or growing up, you never think things like this would happen, so it’s very cool to be a part of something like this,” Marchand said. “It’s just so different than what you’re used to.”
Here are the 26 players who are expected to dress for their first NHL outdoor game:
Boston Bruins: Forwards Noel Acciari, Colby Cave, Jake DeBrusk, Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson; Danton Heinen, Sean Kuraly, Brad Marchand, Joakim Nordstrom, David Pastrnak, Chris Wagner; defensemen Matt Grzelcyk, Brandon Carlo; goalie Jaroslav Halak (forward Ryan Donato and defensemen Steven Kampfer are expected to be scratched; defenseman Charlie McAvoy is injured, forward David Backes is suspended)
Chicago Blackhawks: Forwards Alex DeBrincat, John Hayden, Dominik Kahun, David Kampf, Brendan Perlini, Dylan Sikura, Dylan Strome; defensemen Carl Dahlstrom, Gustav Forsling, Erik Gustafsson, Connor Murphy; goalies Cam Ward, Collin Delia (forward Andreas Martinsen is expected to be scratched, defenseman Brandon Davidson is injured, forward Drake Caggiula is not with the team)