by Bruce Berlet
The Connecticut Whale practiced on the rink at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Conn., on Tuesday in preparation for their game Saturday night at 7 against the Providence Bruins in the Harvest-Properties.com Whale Bowl.
The Whale-Bruins game will be just the second outdoor match in the 75-year history of the American Hockey League.
“It was fun,” Whale rookie Tomas Kundratek said with a wide smile as he warmed up in the locker room after practice. “I used to skate on ponds all the time growing up (in the Czech Republic). I played outdoors in one game, but the rest of the time it was just for fun.”
Kundratek and his teammates said the ice was in excellent condition, a testament to the work of construction manager Jim Hartnett and his crew.
Dale Weise, Devin DiDiomete and Russian Evgeny Grachev were the only players not to wear toques to combat the wind chill, which dipped into the teens. But that seemed balmy to Weise compared to what he often encountered growing up in Winnipeg, Man.
“I’ve skated in way colder than this, maybe minus-35 or minus-40 without the wind chill,” Weise said. “We had some players-only practices in juniors just to go out and have some fun.”
Goalie Chad Johnson said he didn’t anticipate any problems even at night. He grew up playing outdoors in Calgary, Alta., and had a few outdoor practices five years ago while at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. The lights were a lot closer and the rink in the center of the field, so the light angles will be a little different at the 38,000-seat Rentschler Field.
“There will probably be a little more of a shadow on one side, but I don’t foresee any problems,” Johnson said. “The ice was really good, and it’ll be interesting to see how many people we get.”
Veteran defenseman Wade Redden also skated outdoors with his brother Bart and sister Niki on a rink that their father made in Lloydminster, Sask. Redden played with Bart at times, and Niki was a figure skater.
“We never had any games, but most little towns out there (in Western Canada) have rinks, and sometimes it’s colder in them than it is outside,” Redden said. “But my brother, sister and I would go out and skate, even on the odd times before it snowed that the ponds would freeze over so you could skate forever it seemed. You wouldn’t have to clear any snow, so that was a rare time.
“We learned to skate by taking lessons, and every night we’d want to get out on the ice. We skated all the time.”
Head coach Ken Gernander wanted the players to enjoy themselves but also get acclimated to the surroundings and realize an important two points will be on the line as the Whale battles to get into the playoffs in the final 25 games.
“It’s obviously going to be a little bit different circumstances on Saturday,” said Gernander, who grew up on outdoor rinks in Coleraine, Minn. “The weather is going to be warmer, and we’ll be playing under the lights as opposed to the sunlight. But the guys got to see the lay of the land, and we had a good one-hour conditioning practice. So it was a little bit of change of scenery, and they got acclimated to where they’re going to be playing.
“Hopefully they had some fun, but there’s going to be a little bit different feeling or atmosphere on Saturday given the circumstances, so you have to realize at the end of the day, work comes first.”
Is that difficult to convey since the Whale Bowl is a bit of a spectacle?
“The Super Bowl is a spectacle, and they’re able to maintain their focus,” Gernander said. “It’s a concern and something to address, but I don’t think it’s going to be an issue. We’ve got a good group of guys, and I think everyone fully understands how important the two points are going to be.”