Heritage Classic festivities honor best of hockey's traditions
Posted: Sunday November 23, 2003 3:31AM; Updated: Sunday November 23, 2003 3:41AM
The biting Central Alberta cold put a bit of a damper on the NHL's first outdoor game, but the celebration of hockey's roots was a pure triumph.
So much bashing of the sport has gone on lately that it was wonderful to see an entire weekend celebration in Edmonton bring nothing but positive attention. Boring low-scoring games, the upcoming collective bargaining negotiations and Dan Snyder's death in the preseason have all cast a negative light on the game, but for one bitterly cold day in the heartland of hockey, the sole focus was back on the ice.
Every little kid who has tied his skate laces together, tossed his blades over a shoulder and trudged down to the local lake, pond or river, dreamed of someday making the NHL. But outdoor fantasies were the closest most of us ever came. And prior to Saturday night's showcase in the City of Champions, only John Biebe, Skank Marden, Stevie Weeks, Connor Banks, Tree Lane, Birdie Burns and the Mystery, Alaska boys had painted a Hollywood picture of what an outdoor game involving NHL players could be like.
The truth wasn't stranger than fiction in this instance ... it was just better.
The air temperature was minus-2 degrees Fahrenheit at Edmonton's Commonwealth Stadium, yet the record-setting crowd of 57,167 (more than double the previous NHL record of 28,183 set April 23, 1996, for a playoff game at Tampa Bay) braved the elements to be a part of history.
The nip in the air was felt especially on the players' fingers and toes, but breathing in such weather is difficult as well. Lungs which already burn at the end of a typical 40-second shift were punished by the frigid air and aided only slightly by each team cutting their shifts to 30 seconds whenever possible. The heaters behind the benches helped somewhat, but most of the players hadn't dealt with this kind of cold in years.
"We were all a little concerned, but the players were really good about it," Oilers general manager (and MegaStars defenseman) Kevin Lowe told CBC during the second period of the Heritage Classic. "They found it a little cold, but once they got out there [it was OK]. They understand that the conditions are going to be a little bit different. But they recognize that they want to sell the game as much as possible, too, and this was a great show for them. We have to thank the players, and, of course, all the fans that made this an extra special event."
Montreal and Edmonton both were plenty prepared for the frigid conditions because the Habs consulted with the Green Bay Packers about how they handle cold-weather games, while the Oilers chatted with the Grey Cup champion Edmonton Eskimos, which resulted in Ty Conklin wearing green long johns under his goaltending equipment.
The conditions at Commonwealth Stadium also had a direct result on how the Heritage Classic game was played. Players didn't want to ice the puck because stoppages in play meant more time on the ice for the extremities to get chilled to the bone. At one point, the game went more than five minutes without a whistle, an eternity in a normal game.
And while ice guru Dan Craig and his crack staff did a commendable job getting the ice ready, the extreme cold made the surface brittle and caused the puck to bounce wildly when lifted for a pass or shot. Even rolling pucks suddenly made unexpected turns and jumps away from their intended targets.
The Oilers' style is based so much on speed and passing that the poor ice and the Canadiens' trapping style combined to make it tough for them to build up rushes. It's impressive that Edmonton got off 37 shots given the style of play of its opponent and the shaky ice.
In the MegaStars Game, the Oilers' best line was the late-'80s trio of Craig Simpson, Mark Messier and Glenn Anderson, while Benoit Brunet, Guy Carbonneau and Stephane Richer comprised the most impressive Habs unit.
Wayne Gretzky spent a little time in his "office" behind the net, the spot from which he racked up a good number of his 1,963 career assists, but he and linemates Esa Tikkanen and Jari Kurri had a quiet game.
"Listen, we're not as good as we used to be," Gretzky said. "There's no chance. But we had a lot of fun out there. Both teams gave it a nice effort and these people were tremendous. It was a great day for hockey."
New Hall of Famer Grant Fuhr flashed his lightning-quick glove hand to rob Richer in the first period. Bill Ranford made a couple of gems in the second, too, stoning Richer with 2:22 to play, then making a cross-crease leaping save to deny Russ Courtnall. The Great One joked afterward that the high-flying Oilers, always maligned for their focus on offense, took great pride in earning the 2-0 shutout.
Canadiens Hall of Fame defenseman Larry Robinson had a good laugh when he recognized Paul Coffey and Charlie Huddy trying a set play that he and Coffey used years ago in a Canada Cup tournament. With his name atop the Florida Panthers' wish list to become their new head coach, and wrist surgery pending, Robinson made playing in the MegaStars Game his top priority, putting off his surgery and interviews with the Panthers.
"It's exceeded [my expectations]," Robinson told CBC during the MegaStars Game. "I think everybody was so worried about that cold, and we have to give all these fans here so much credit to be out here an to brave these elements and to hopefully enjoy themselves. For us to be able to come out to see these guys that we haven't in such a long time, and have such a great time with it -- I'm just having a ball."
What stands out most about the MegaStars Game was the number of charming sights that resulted from these legendary teams assembling some of their top players of the past 30 years. Ken Linseman's Rec-Specs over a knit stocking cap was a distinct fashion statement, even for an November outdoor hockey game in Canada. "The Rat" also used his heavy wooden twig from the early 80s, a positively antiquated piece of equipment when compared with not only modern wood sticks, but especially composite one-pieces.
Tikkanen, the original super pest, zeroed in on Robinson ready to throw a ferocious body check, then leapt away at the last second laughing.
Courtnall checked Jeff Beukeboom into the boards, eliciting laughter from both teams who are used to the hands-off nature of All-Star Games and old-timers' contests.
Ranford used his old relic of a straight-bladed goalie stick, the last NHL netminder to play without a curve on his blade.
Former enforcers extraordinaire Dave Semenko and Chris Nilan shared a laugh late in the game when Nilan bumped "The Bodyguard" after a stoppage -- a situation that 20 years ago would've resulted in an all-out throwdown.
Seeing Gretzky back wearing his No. 99 blue and orange Oilers sweater was a definite highlight, but having current NHL players battle the elements and each other to earn a crucial two points in a regular-season game was even better.
The indelible image of the night will be seeing Jose Theodore wear a red Canadiens toque atop his goalie mask for added warmth. On an evening built for nostalgia, it's not at all difficult to close your eyes and picture Theo trudging down to the local pond in Laval, Quebec, 15 years ago wearing similar headgear.
"I remember that my mom always said, 'Put a toque on -- you're going to catch a cold.' " Theodore said. "So I decided to make sure she's not going to say anything when I go back home, so I put a toque on."
All told, it was a near-perfect evening in Edmonton ... if a bone-chilling, below-zero November night can be considered as such. The league and the city of Edmonton did a splendid job planning and pulling off this mammoth undertaking, and it will surely have other cities clamoring to be the next to venture into the great outdoors.
Jon A. Dolezar covers the NHL for SI.com.