On New Year’s Day 2014, 105,491 fans packed into Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Mich. to witness a true spectacle of sport. The Toronto Maple Leafs defeated the Detroit Red Wings 3-2 on a frigid, snowy day, continuing the NHL’s tradition of playing an outdoor game every year.
It’s hard to put into words just how special an event it is. The stories of playing on the pond can only come from those lucky few who have experienced it themselves. But interested Chicagoans need not knock on Patrick Kane’s door to elicit an outdoor game. That’s because Chicago has its own outdoor hockey league, one that anybody can join regardless of skill level.
Three years ago, Sean Campbell realized that his love for outdoor hockey could be transplanted into the heart of Chicago with careful planning and a dose of passion. His hard work and dedication led to the creation of the Chicago Outdoor Hockey League (COHL).
“I started the league because I love playing outdoors,” Campbell said. “I remember doing it as a kid and I thought it would be amazing to have an organized outdoor league here in a big hockey town.”
The concept of an outdoor hockey league drew intense interest and over 250 men and women participated in the inaugural campaign. This year, membership ballooned to 500 athletes across four different skill divisions.
“Some of them played college hockey,” David Julian said. Julian is a league referee, though he also spends time playing. “Some of them played in high school and want to continue. Some are beginners. No matter what skill level you have, we’ve designed the league to be able to learn the game and be competitive.”
The COHL plays at rinks across the Chicagoland area and beyond. Locations stretch from Cicero to Winnetka, with a rink in Rosemont planned for next year. Through his work with the Chicago Blackhawks, Campbell has been able to secure a sponsorship that makes it far easier for the league to gain access to these facilities. He works with the ice crew and has made contacts with people who recognize the importance of outdoor hockey. Their long term plans need all the support possible because the COHL has its sights set on becoming the premier outdoor league in the nation.
“We want to be able to run our league on every outdoor rink in the Chicagoland area, from the city itself all the way to the Naperville are and further. There’s outdoor rinks everywhere,” Julian said.
Luck is on their side. There have been very few roadblocks on the path to legitimacy and nature itself seems to be looking favorably on them.
“There’s nothing like playing outside. Cold, snow, whatever. It’s amazing,” Eric Kripas said. Kripas is a member of the first COHL team and was instrumental in helping Campbell build the league. He and Campbell had a hand in the COHL’s crowning achievement: organizing an allstar game within the confines of Soldier Field.
“Soldier Field. Man, it was surreal,” Kripas said. “It was just a once in a lifetime thing. It was unreal. The aura, the snow, everything … it was incredible.”
Thanks to the efforts of Campbell and his crew, the game was the first official outdoor hockey event in the history of the storied stadium. In fact, that game is one that everyone holds close to their hearts and will never forget.
“We made history,” Campbell said.
“Playing and reffing [at Soldier Field] was something I’ll never forget,” Julian said.
Kripas knew it was something special the second he stepped out onto the field. It also meant that the game was something of a culmination of all the league’s efforts. “It defined what outdoor hockey is supposed to be.”
Rain or snow, the league chugs along. The only stoppages that have happened this year have been due to unsafe temperatures. Should it snow, crews clean the ice between periods; if there is buildup on the surface while the players are skating, the game continues normally. It’s the weather, good or bad, that makes it a memorable experience for many of the players.
“You battle the elements. Indoors, everything is the same. It’s fun to fight the snow and fight the sun,” Julian said.
Players are often recommended to wear extra layers to keep themselves warmer, but, to nobody’s surprise, that’s not a popular sentiment.
“My girlfriend is a nurse and is always giving me these tips on how to stay warm,” said Kripas. “The only thing that really gets cold is the extremities. I try to wear as little warming gear as possible because it gets pretty constricting.”
The COHL will only continue to grow. In Chicago, hockey has become a cultural staple and the ability to play the way nature intended is as enticing a possibility as there can be for enthusiasts. Campbell and his league make it easy for anyone to follow their dreams and have the experience of a lifetime. It’s an all-encompassing activity that leaves its participants in awe of its beauty and scope every week.
“It’s what I’m thinking about the night before,” Kripas said. He missed the NFL “I’m giddy about knowing I can play hockey. I love watching football [on Sunday] but this is hockey. This is awesome.”
If you’re interested in playing outdoor hockey, you can get all the information you need at the COHL website. But don’t just look there. Listen to the stories. “I remember my first game,” Kripas said.
“I remember all the guys getting there. We were all anxious. We all played outside before but when we first stepped out there we knew we were part of something special … I just remember that first puck drop. Everyone had a certain smile to them I’ll never forget. I felt like I was six years old again, playing outside with my dad. It was a one-time feeling I’ll never get again. It was like, ‘Wow, this is awesome.'”