With a mix of childlike enthusiasm and veteran wisdom, the Colorado Avalanche forward took NHL.com through his Friday, when he saw Lake Tahoe for the first time, pulled on his adidas Reverse Retro jersey for the first time and practiced amid sun, wind and waves.
The 35-year-old put in perspective what it means for the Avalanche and Vegas Golden Knights to play in the Bridgestone NHL Outdoors Saturday (3 p.m. ET; NBC, SN, SN1, TVAS).
“Those moments, you really have to cherish them,” he said. “Make sure you’re playing as hard as you can, but you have to be present in the moment, not stressing about your next shift, not stressing about that. I know my job. I’m going to do it to the best of my abilities. But I really, really want to make sure I have my eyes as wide open as they can possibly be.”
You might remember Jan. 12, when Bellemare said he was excited because he had never skated on a lake. Sitting next to him in a press conference, Avalanche forward Andre Burakovsky told him the game would not be on Lake Tahoe but next to it on the 18th fairway of the golf course at Edgewood Tahoe Resort.
“For real?” Bellemare said then. “Oh, you just crushed my dreams.”
Turns out, though, Bellemare is living the dream.
When the Avalanche arrived Thursday evening, it was too dark to see the lake. After waking up Friday, Bellemare spoke via video conference with his mother, Frederique Gallois, who lives in Normandy, France. He opened the curtains and shared the view with her. There it was, Lake Tahoe, vast and, well, unfrozen.
“I was like, ‘OK, I understand why we are not on the lake,’ ” he said.
Bellemare felt like a youth hockey player at a big tournament as he joined his teammates. Instead of wearing dress suits like they normally do, each man distinct in his style, the Avalanche wore matching warmup suits.
The first thing that struck him upon arrival at Edgewood Tahoe Resort was the backstage infrastructure, the village of office trailers and event tents and heavy equipment needed to pull off this event.
“It’s kind of a sense of respect about all the planning,” he said. “You see all those different [things] and all of the prep work that you don’t even think about.”
The players bypassed the event tent serving as their locker room and headed straight for the rink. First, they saw the decorations that made it seem constructed of wood and stone. Then they climbed a small riser on the northeast end, and when they got to the top, they saw the view they’d heard so much about.
“You see the rink, but you see the lake, magnificent behind it, and then the mountains,” Bellemare said. “At that point, you’re like, ‘OK, I need to take a picture of this.’ This is like, ‘Open your eyes. Make sure you take in everything you see, because this is once in a lifetime.’ “
Eventually, they went to the locker room.
“So you walk in, and I mean, the first thing you see is the friggin’ jerseys,” Bellemare said. “They are absolutely sick.”
The jerseys honor the Quebec Nordiques, who played in the World Hockey Association from 1972-73 and the NHL from 1979-95 before the franchise moved to Colorado and became the Avalanche.
Equipment manager J.C. Ihrig told Bellemare he had a surprise for him, but Bellemare was so enraptured with his jersey, taking a video of it to share with his family and friends, that it took him a moment before he sat down, looked in front of him and saw what the surprise was.
It was a sign with the Nordiques logo and a reference to that press conference. It said: “DID YOU KNOW … BELLY HAS NEVER SKATED ON A LAKE BEFORE!”
Bellemare laughed, and his teammates laughed with him and took pictures. Ihrig told Bellemare he could keep the sign as a souvenir after the event.
“I was like, ‘Aw, that’s awesome,’ ” Bellemare said. “It’s the little things, the little, sweet moments. It’s memories for life.”
The Avalanche were supposed to be on the ice by 11:30 a.m. PT, but the players were so excited that most were out of the locker room by 11:15. Bellemare pulled on his jersey, admired it in the mirror and spent most of his walk to the ice talking about the uniform with forward Mikko Rantanen.
“The whole thing with the burgundy gloves, the burgundy pants and that jersey that is just absolutely flashy, I mean, it has to be the top outfit in the League right now,” he said. “I’m so, so honored and proud to be able to wear it. Oh, my god. It’s such a cool jersey.”
Finally, the Avalanche got to take the ice.
Three or four strides, and Bellemare noticed how bright the sun was. He wore eye black with a special message, “(HEART) MY MOM,” so she could wake up in France on Saturday, see a picture of it and smile.
He noticed how the cool wind would breeze through his gear and even seemed to push him along at times, and he noticed how, from the north end of the rink to about the tops of the circles at the south end, Lake Tahoe seemed to descend to the tops of the boards.
“It’s like you’re skating with the water right beside you,” he said. “It’s pretty sick.”
It’s something soak in.
“I know it’s a lot of work for the League, so it’s unbelievable that they’re doing it,” Bellemare said. “But it’s an amazing experience for the players. Amazing.”