The man in section C-2, row 72, seat 4—about a dozen rows from the top of a football stadium—wore eight layers of clothing and carried a blanket, preparing to settle in for a long day of hockey. The temperature in Edmonton last Saturday afternoon was 2� F, cold enough to turn a cup of beer into an alcoholic Slurpee, but Jeff Pederson, a Baileys-and-coffee man, was unfazed. "This is going to be one long party," said Pederson, a 32-year-old Edmontonian. "If you don't come from Canada, you don't get it. The colder the better. Makes me feel tougher." Pederson, bless him, puts the hype in hypothermia. � With weather better suited for Penguins than Oilers and Canadiens, the NHL staged its first regular-season outdoor game on the 86th anniversary of the league's inception. Bob Johnson, the late coach, would have called it "a great day for hockey," and Ernie (Snow) Banks would have said, "Let's play two," which Edmonton and Montreal did, starting with an alumni game between players from the last two Canadian-based dynasties the league is likely to see, followed by a regular-season two-pointer, won by the Canadiens 4-3. On a rink constructed with 1,000 sheets of plywood, 65 truckloads of sand, 800 feet of pipe and 205 tons of refrigerated brine, pucks bounced drunkenly and goalies' trappers turned from leather into bronze. But everyone privileged enough to tug on a uniform swore publicly that he'd had a historic time despite a temperature—down to-1� when the puck was dropped—that should have made clutch-and-grab hockey mandatory, for warmth if nothing else.
This was one game in which gaffe-prone Canadiens defenseman Patrice Brisebois wasn't going to get undressed. The players wore thermal undergarments, cowls under their helmets, mitts under their hockey gloves, and hand and foot warmers. The only player lightly dressed was another Montreal defenseman, St�phane Quintal, who sported only a cowl with his customary gear because he found the layers constricting. ( Quintal is nicknamed Q, not IQ.)
There were 57,167 in Commonwealth Stadium, an NHL record, but the place would have had to seat 900,000 to satisfy every ticket request. Canada sheds its natural diffidence when it comes to hockey, of course, but the palpable excitement over the Heritage Classic, the sport's Woodstock, was practically worldwide. The one locale in the hockey universe that seemed unmoved was the United States, where the game was not available live on television because the NHL's principal telecasters, ESPN and ESPN2, were showing, respectively, Alabama-Auburn and the Gamecocks versus Clemson, a big deal in the People's Republic of South Carolina.
The alumni game was especially captivating, most notably because of the reappearance of Wayne Gretzky in an Oilers uniform. Gretzky, like the late Joe DiMaggio, eschews alumni games, but the Phoenix Coyotes' managing partner, who last played for the Oilers in the 1987-88 season, for once made an exception and put on the oil-drop sweater. He was reunited with 42-year-old Mark Messier, who's still playing (for the New York Rangers), thus marking perhaps another first in the history of alumni games. The outdoor setting, Gretzky, an active player—if this old-timers' game had any more new wrinkles, it would have needed Botox.
After practice last Friday, Messier marveled at the resumption of dangling conversations from the 1980s and at how the old, once-freewheeling Oilers gravitated to their former seats on the bus and in the dressing room. (The Montreal alumni also took their accustomed places; winger Russ Courtnall was spotted in front of the dressing-room mirror.) Rangers general manager and coach Glen Sather, who had coached those Oilers to four Stanley Cups and was brought back for the occasion to coach the grandiosely named Oilers MegaStars, reveled in "the sparkle in their eyes, the flash of their teeth and the way they smiled." Said Sather, "After about 10 minutes [of practice in frigid weather], I asked the group around me, 'You guys had enough?' They said, 'Are you kidding?' They remembered the drills we used to do like they stepped off the ice yesterday."
Given the NHL's looming labor problems, which threaten to wipe out next season, the look back could hardly have been more welcome for the league's image. The alumni game, won 2-0 by Edmonton, was poetry in only moderately slow motion. The 30-minute match provided such touching moments as Messier's helping groom the ice with a shovel after the first period, Canadiens forward St�phane Richer's congratulating Grant Fuhr after the Oilers goalie made a rapier-quick glove save on him, and Guy Lafleur's again skating the wing even though the D�mon Blond's hair—or, more accurately, his plugs—could hardly fly under the Canadiens toque. (That's ski hat to you.)
"This is going back to shinny hockey," said Steve Shutt, Lafleur's old linemate. "No glitz. No glamour. With all the things going on in pro hockey—now, for one day, people get a chance to watch guys get on the ice and just play."
Of course, the Canadiens-Oilers game didn't stop when the puck was fired into a snowbank, and the match didn't end with a mother's hoarse cry of "Dinner!" Today's players grew up in a Zamboni and ice-time world devoid of frostbite. For this generation of NHL players, pond hockey was an occasional diversion, not anything central to their careers. This was an exercise in nostalgia for someone else's good old days.
The age of formal outdoor hockey effectively ended in 1961 after the Trail (B.C.) Smoke Eaters won the world championships in Switzerland playing four of their games outdoors in Lausanne. There are still lower-division professional teams in Europe that play in rinks with roofs but no walls, but outdoor hockey in North America seemed ludicrous until Michigan State put a jerry-built rink into Spartan Stadium in October 2001 and attracted a record crowd of 74,554 to see a 3-3 draw against Michigan. While other NHL cities, including Detroit and Toronto, will ponder a stadium hockey game, the novelty could dissipate more quickly than the crowd, the bulk of which stayed to the bitter end even as the windchill factor hit-18.
The players had heated benches and changes of underwear, the millionaire's version of the boyhood hot chocolate. "It was warm on the bench," said Canadiens right wing Richard Zednik, who scored twice. "[Usually] I don't like to be on the bench, but tonight I found it exciting."