There is, of course, only one Winter Classic. It’s the one with capital letters, its own HBO special and a national primetime television audience.
Then there is, more simply, a true winter classic – no less surreal in setting, perhaps more sublime in execution.
While the NHL’s 2012 Winter Classic delayed its start time to cater to Philadelphia's fickle weather conditions, a winter classic had already unfolded like clockwork 300 or so miles to the north in the form of the 2012 USA Hockey/Fenway Sports Management Youth Hockey Day at Boston’s historic Fenway Park.
Fenway, two years removed from hosting the 2010 Winter Classic, served as the site of this instant classic, which featured 16 Mite programs, all six New England states, five hours and three zones of cross-ice fun, countless photo ops and one Green Monster (often pronounced, “mohnstah”).
Teams arrived on a Monday morning from all corners of the region, nearly all of which fall under the umbrella of the Red Sox Nation. Across the street from the ballpark, a parking lot began to fill up early with cars and SUVs and minivans bearing license places from Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts.
Once inside, parents set up shop, filling three grandstand sections along the third baseline, trying to make sense of the dreamtastic view and firing away on their cameras. Meanwhile, their sons and daughters spent almost an hour skating on air, having what locals would call a “wicked good time.”
The rink, set across the Fenway infield, was split into three cross-ice sections. Programs rotated through cross-ice games in each offensive zone, then jumped into games of soccer, tag and ringette at center ice. Traditional, up and down, bunched-up Mite hockey it was not. Which, in some respects, is exactly what made sense for an outdoor venue.
Through it all, USA Hockey’s Roger Grillo served as a master of ceremonies of sorts.
“It’s a huge deal,” said Grillo, one of six regional managers for USA Hockey’s American Development Model. “Huge. Just walking in, people were like, ‘Holy Cow.’ Hats off to the Red Sox organization for donating the time that they did and donating their beautiful building to the youth hockey players of New England.”
The day served as both reward and showcase for the ADM model.
“This is all ADM-based, it’s all touches, repetitions, fun, moving,” said Grillo, who covers the New England region from his home in North Kingstown, R.I.
“They’re just having fun, but they’re working on some stuff that will make them better hockey players.”
“The building is as famous as the team. It's a wonderful event and one these kids will remember for the rest of their lives.”
It was not only a memorable day for players and parents, but also for coaches who could talk more directly about ADM methods.
“The coaches are having as much fun as the kids, and it’s beautiful,” said Grillo, who joined USA Hockey after 12 seasons as the head coach of Brown University.
Among the coaches on the ice was AJ Mleczko Griswold, the 1999 Patty Kazmaier Award winner and two-time Olympic medalist. Now the mother of four, she coaches three (the youngest had been born only four weeks earlier) in the Concord-Carlisle program, the oldest of whom skated at Fenway.
“Roger emailed to ask, ‘Is this something you might be interested in?,’ as if I had to think about it,” Griswold said with a laugh. “Everybody’s been over the moon about it.”
Griswold, too, is an advocate of the ADM and cross-ice hockey, and not just for Mites.
“I loved cross-ice games as a player, even at the Olympic level,” said Griswold, who retired in 2003. “You learn positional play in respect to the puck. And that’s much more important than learning that a wing has to be at the half-boards on the breakout.”
There are, of course, differing opinions on cross-ice hockey, but this USA Hockey/Fenway Sports Management Youth Hockey Day was, as the name suggests, about the players on the ice and the venue.
“It’s amazing,” said Simsbury, Conn., parent Josh Livingston, who grew up playing in the heyday of the New York Islanders dynasty and watched his twin sons at Fenway. “It’s just a perfect day for it. I also have two girls in the program. My kids have the hockey bug and there’s no getting rid of it right now.”
It’s not every day that a coach brings a camera on the ice with him, but it was commonplace for this January morning.
In fact, some parents even risked the ire of event security by walking down to field level for a few shots. But that’s where folks like Winchester’s David Conway, who served as a de facto team photographer for the day, came to the rescue. His directive? Snap pictures of every player.
“It’s just a great day,” Conway said. “They’re all Red Sox fans, and they’re all hockey fans, so this is the best of both worlds for them. The important thing was trying to get a picture of each of them under the Fenway Park banner.”
And if he didn’t? “Photoshop!”
If you think it’s hard getting kids off the ice at your local rink, try getting them off the ice after a once-in-a-lifetime event. Having to leave the ice, albeit with smiles, may have been the only downside to the day.
From Winchester “sniper” Angelo Mario; to Western Maine “BFFs” Kimberley McLaughlin and Allison Domegan; to Lakes Region’s Breanna Ricker, whose brother, Bryce, was more happy than envious of his sister; to Maranacook’s Wyatt Lyons, whose younger brothers could be found sprawled out and asleep on the Fenway concourse; to Rochester’s Lucas Belmont, who wears No. 20 “FOR KEVIN YOUKILIS;” and everyone who came through the historic gates, hundreds of lifetime memories were made.
“The building is as famous as the team,” said Grillo, who grew up in Minnesota but eventually became a Red Sox fan. “It’s a wonderful event and one these kids will remember for the rest of their lives.”
Fenway has served for generations as a field of dreams, which made it an ideal home for a day to young skaters who were able to live out a frozen fantasy.
Simply, a winter classic.
James MacDonald is a freelance writer based out of Sandwich, Mass.