Armstrong’s outdoor game gets added twist

Armstrong graduate and current Buffalo Sabre Jordan Leopold skated with his old team during winter break at Armstrong High School in an outdoor game at Medley Park. (Submitted photo)
Armstrong graduate and current Buffalo Sabre Jordan Leopold skated with his old team during winter break at Armstrong High School in an outdoor game at Medley Park. (Submitted photo)

Kristian Evans struggled to find the words to describe the sight.

Since as long as he can remember, the walk from his front door to the ice rinks at Medley Park had always been accompanied with some level of excitement.

He is a hockey player, after all. And outdoor games generally ignite that sort of enthusiasm.

This time, however, as he headed that direction, the feelings were even more amplified.

This was practice for his Armstrong boys hockey team, and a couple of guys looking for some ice decided to join in.

“It’s a three-block walk, and when I get there, I see these guys suiting up to skate with us,” said Evans. “I could hardly believe what I was seeing.”

In that moment, the entire team became what was likely the only 25 hockey players in the country happy about the National Hockey League lockout, which coincidently ended this past weekend.

But during the last week of December, a couple of the world’s best met up with Armstrong at Medley Park.

Armstrong graduate Jordan Leopold, who was a Hobey Baker winner and NCAA champion at the University of Minnesota, and has since gone on to nine full seasons in the NHL, was on had.

As was Vancouver Canucks defensemen Andrew Alberts, who played high school hockey with current Armstrong head coach Danny Charleston at Benilde-St. Margaret’s before embarking on a pro career that has spanned eight years.

Both players actually reached out to Charleston about coming out to skate with Armstrong, and it wasn’t because they needed ice time.

“They are NHLer’s, they can get ice,” said Charleston. “Don’t get me wrong, they worked hard, but the real reason they wanted to come was to give back to our kids a little bit.  It was awesome, and to see our kids out there with NHL was players was really something. Every one of them got something out of it.”

For Evans, it was a little more. He grew up in the shadow of Medley Park, and has made the three-block trek to the outdoor rink more times than he can remember.

To add to the mystique, one of his regular linemates had to miss the practice because of an illness.

Leopold took his place on that wing.

“It was kind of the stuff of legends,” said Evans. “I was playing with one of the guys I few up idolizing. I can’t really put words to how unbelievable it was.”

The rest of his teammates struggled some too in their search through the hockey vocabulary to describe the setting of skating outdoors, in the elements, alongside their teammates, and these two pros.

Ben Hansen said it was something he’d never forget. Brady Johnson awed at their abilities. Even Charleston got caught up in how they went about teaching.

“There were no restrictions,” said Charleston. “If they wanted to teach the kids something, I wanted them to teach. And the kids visually view them on the ice, and that is one of the best teaching tools you can have. The way they move, pivot on their skates, pass and shoot. They can gain a lot just from watching that.”

In the near future, Charleston would prefer his players were actually playing games during the break.

The schedule he inherited this winter didn’t have a holiday tournament on it. In response, he wanted to try and keep the kids sharp during practice, but also wanted to keep it fun.

That was the original idea behind organizing the outdoor game. It just happened to have some added flavor.

“It was cool to get to play outside in the first place, and then we find out these guys are there,” said Hansen. “They just wanted to be one of us, which was cool. But to see them play, and know where they have been, it was really special to be apart of it.”