Pond hockey is something Americans "don't get", unless you live in the northern one-quarter of the United States. My hockey experiences growing up included a little bit of pond hockey, but winters rarely got cold enough for ponds to freeze solid. We were content carrying our shovels along with our gear and cleaning off the asphalt of the basketball court before we played. Once in a while we treated ourselves, and rented a municipal ice rink in the wee hours of the morning. We'd try to grab some sleep (but not too much, lest we oversleep and miss playing), then play from 3-5am, then hit the diner for some breakfast and to defrost ourselves, before heading home for some sleep.
A Canadian I play with once told me that ice rinks in Canada are as numerous as basketball courts are here in the U.S.: there's one (or more) nearby every Canadian kid's house. Those with some land in the backyard (and a dad who was willing) had a part of their yard set aside as a rink each winter. Last year the Staal brothers brought cameras back to their own backyard rink to explain the role it played in their love for hockey. YouTube has it:
To understand the Winter Classic, imagine if the Yankees and Mets played each other in some little league ballpark. Or, imagine if the Giants and Jets had a game on a Pop Warner field. That's the closest metaphor I can think of in other sports. Most, if not all, of these NHL players grew up playing pond hockey, whether it was in Canada, the U.S., Russia, Sweden, etc. Now that the NHL has expanded to the southern United States, one wonders what'll happen when the inevitable kid who grew up in Atlanta, San Jose, or Raleigh, makes the NHL, and has no memory of cold winter afternoons spent playing in driveways, streets, or on ponds.
It's good for the game of hockey in the U.S., because it wreaks of nostalgia. It's a major undertaking to build a professional hockey rink in the middle of a football or baseball stadium, and to be honest, the seating in a ballpark is horrible for watching a hockey game. It's about watching adults (whether they are 18 or 19 like Patrick Kane or Jonathan Toews, or as old as 46 year old Chris Chelios) play outside. But it's good old shmaltzy fun.
For those of us who play recreational hockey, at times on rinks that are partially enclosed, it's a blast watching NHL players deal with the same things we deal with: fog, freezing cold, soft spots on the ice, etc. For a moment, we put ourselves in their shoes (well, their skates, actually) and think for a second that we can do what they do.
In this day and age when kids are more likely to be found playing virtual sports on a Nintendo Wii than actually playing the sport itself (and they wonder why we have a childhood obesity problem?), kids begin to think that every swing of a bat they'll take will be a home run off a 100 mile an hour fastball. It's only when (and if) they head to a batting cage and actually try to hit a 100mph ball that they realize how much harder it is to actually do what they were pretending to do so well on a computer.
OK, now for the Theology metaphor: In this Christmas season, we focus on God lowering Himself to become a man (something which Abp. Fulton Sheen once said was the equivalent of a human being choosing to become a dog). The Winter Classic lets us think, for a second, that the pros have become "just like one of us". Maybe, after watching it, I may try to lift my game up by trying to become more like the a player I just watched. If Sidney Crosby or Ryan Miller or Kane and Toews, or Henrik Zetterberg or Chris Osgood can inspire a hockey player to strive to improve their game, then what should my attitude be when I contemplate the Word made flesh? How does He call me to "elevate my game"?
Who thought hockey could be "incarnational"?