NASHVILLE — Every year for as long as Steven Stamkos can remember, his parents threw him a birthday party on a frozen pond near his home in Markham, Ontario.
The invitations were simple and straightforward: Wear your long-johns, bring your skates and stick, and be ready to play.
“I mean, my birthday is in February (Feb. 7) so that was the birthday party every year, go to the local pond and have a big shinny game with hot chocolate and pizza and all that stuff,” the Tampa Bay Lightning captain said Friday. “Those were some really great memories for me.”
Stamkos and his Lightning teammates get to create a new outdoor hockey memory Saturday night. The NHL sent the invitations this time, and more than 65,000 people are expected to show up.
“And at least here you don’t have to worry about falling through the ice,” Stamkos said.
The Lightning will play their first outdoor game, becoming the 27th NHL team to participate in one, when they face the Nashville Predators at Nissan Stadium, home of the NFL’s Tennessee Titans, in the 2022 Navy Federal Credit Union NHL Stadium Series (7:30 p.m. ET; TNT, SN360, TVAS2, NHL LIVE).
It will be the 34th outdoor NHL game since 2003. It also might be the last time Stamkos and many of his teammates experience a first in their NHL careers, unless this season the Lightning become the first team to win three straight Stanley Cup championships since the New York Islanders won four straight from 1980-83.
“That’s pretty cool to be in your 14th season, to be around as long as I have and still get to experience a first,” the forward said. “That’s pretty special to do at this point in my career. We’re just going to embrace the atmosphere.
“You can tell there’s a little buzz with everyone walking in the dressing room, checking everything out. It feels like something new.”
Stamkos, Tampa Bay’s active leader in games played with 890, said the Lightning players have been talking about this game for months, barely able to contain their excitement.
They’ve discussed everything from how many tickets they can get, to who is coming, to what the pregame introductions will be like, to the entertainers who will be performing, headlined by country singers Miranda Lambert and Dierks Bentley.
“I know we’ve been trying to push for one in Tampa, but weather is a little bit of an issue for our climate,” Stamkos said. “Hey, it’s a great problem to have. We’re not complaining about that. But we’re just as excited as the fans are to play this game, especially the players that haven’t gotten to experience something like this.”
Forward Alex Killorn, third among active players in games played with the Lightning (691) behind Stamkos and defenseman Victor Hedman (866), said the level of excitement he is feeling for his first outdoor game is unlike anything he has felt for any regular-season game.
“I mean, you have your first game and the first game of every season because you have the whole summer and you’re just kind of waiting, but it doesn’t compare to this because it’s such a different environment,” Killorn said. “When it got announced I was excited, but when I actually got here and you’re seeing Dierks Bentley just warming up, the families, everything, it kind of sinks in that this is pretty cool.”
Killorn said he believes being in this game also enhances the Lightning’s national brand, which is already strong after back-to-back championships.
“When you look at teams that have gotten outdoor games, it’s a lot of Original Six teams, teams that have a lot of history,” he said. “We talk, not angrily, but in the locker room whenever they announce the teams for these games, we feel like we get slighted a bit just because we feel like we’ve done a lot. I think we got rewarded this year.”
Seven Lightning players have played at least one NHL outdoor game, led by defenseman Ryan McDonagh with four. Forward Pierre-Edouard Bellemare has played three. Forwards Corey Perry and Pat Maroon each has played two, as has goalie Brian Elliott. Defensemen Zach Bogosian and Fredrik Claesson each has played one.
“It’s fun watching these guys experience it,” Perry said. “Everybody is like a little kid in a candy shop right now checking everything out and getting the full experience. And that’s what it’s all about. You soak it all in and have fun with it. You never know when your next chance is going to be.”
The Lightning won’t be lacking in fan support judging by the number of people wearing their blue and white jerseys, sweatshirts, hats and toques around downtown Nashville, in the hotels and the honky-tonks on Lower Broadway.
“I took a walk right when we got to the hotel and I didn’t see anyone that wasn’t a Lightning fan,” Killorn said. “It was wild. I talked to some people that were out and about last night and they told me there were some Lightning chants going on in some bars.”
Stamkos said he’s not surprised by it.
“I know how our fans are,” he said. “When you don’t get to experience something like this as an organization before, the first time everyone is going to be really excited. We can feed off that energy. It’s great. They deserve to have an event like this.”
An event bigger than any birthday party he could have imagined.
“It’s different, and anytime things are different you have that anxious energy that builds up inside you,” Stamkos said. “It’s something that tomorrow, although in the standings it’s two points, there’s more to it than that. It’s really cool.”