Beyond Headlines: Atmosphere at outdoor games have teams itching to play

Scott Oake and Kelly Hrudey catch up with Paul Maurice following the Winnipeg Jets victory over the Calgary Flames in overtime of the Heritage Classic, recounting some hockey memories on his way to 700 wins as an NHL head coach.

REGINA — Paul Maurice may have had the best view in the house. Down at field level in a top-rate football facility, with a chance to look around Mosaic Stadium and soak in an idyllic night for hockey.

“The fireworks are going off and those [fighter] jets coming over and ‘O Canada’ is just done and it’s snowing out,” said Maurice. “You just need Santa and the reindeer blasting over and it would have been the perfect scene, right?”

This is why the NHL continues to roll out two or three outdoor games per season. Yes, there’s a financial component at play — 33,000-plus fans turned out Saturday night in Regina, more than twice what the Winnipeg Jets draw for a typical “home” game — but the on-the-ground experience remains overwhelmingly positive.

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For everyone involved.

The Calgary Flames were no less enthusiastic about the Heritage Classic than Maurice and they blew a late third-period lead and lost to the Jets in overtime.

The NHL is doing something a little different with its Jan. 1 Winter Classic this season by taking the game to the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. That may offer a hint of what’s to come, with warm-weather destinations like Tampa and Arizona considered strong contenders for future outdoor events.

As for what’s next in Canada, the biggest hurdle is our lack of suitable venues. It doesn’t sound like there’ll be another Heritage Classic next season, but 2021-22 remains a possibility.

Whenever it is, wherever it is, you’ll have teams itching to play.

The atmosphere can’t be matched for a regular-season game.

CONNOR SAVES

Lost in all the discussion about the Jets battered blue line and the uncertainty around Dustin Byfuglien’s future is a good-news story for Winnipeg: Connor Hellebuyck appears to have reclaimed his position among the NHL’s elite goaltenders.

He finished second in Vezina Trophy voting two seasons ago and took a step back towards average last year.

It’s not that he was bad — most goalies would take 34 wins and a .913 save percentage in a heartbeat — but on nights where there were breakdowns in front of him he didn’t find a way to make the extra unexpected save, or steal as many games, as he did the year before.

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They are leaning on him heavily now.

The only Jets defencemen with more than 200 games of NHL experience on their resumes are Josh Morrissey, Dmitry Kulikov and recent waiver claim Luca Sbisa. Neal Pionk is drawing strong reviews for his early-season play, but Winnipeg is still patching it together with Carl Dahlstrom, Tucker Poolman, Anthony Bitetto and 18-year-old rookie Ville Heinola seeing minutes.

Hellebuyck is more than carrying his own weight behind that group with a .933 save percentage through nine starts. He said he’d “cherish” the Heritage Classic win a little more than others and played a huge role in his team’s comeback victory with 25 saves through two periods, including a Johnny Gaudreau breakaway in the opening seconds.

“I think he’s saving most of the pucks,” said teammate Patrik Laine. “We were struggling to score and he kept us in the game. It could have been 3-0 and then the game’s pretty much done. He gave us a chance to win again and we took advantage of that.”

Internally, the Jets are still figuring out what they are after enduring a lot of upheaval over the summer. But they’re a lot better off if Hellebuyck is great rather than good.

FAVOURITE SIGHT OF THE WEEKEND

Elliotte Friedman’s questionable sense of “style” in below-freezing temperatures. The man with Saskatchewan roots was wearing wool socks over his dress pants while walking around Mosaic Stadium.

There are pictures, but I won’t share. For now.

RANKING THEM

I’ve covered 12 of the 28 NHL games played outdoors. There’s been sun delays, a rain delay, snow and toe-freezing cold.

Oh, and all kinds of revelry in the stands.

Here’s a completely subjective list of the best/most memorable outdoor games I’ve witnessed:

1. 2014 Winter Classic, Toronto vs. Detroit, at The Big House in Ann Arbor, Mich.
More than 100,000 fans — with one side of the stadium wearing red, the other draped in blue — and a majestic snowfall. There was an epic tailgating scene and it was followed by a tight, entertaining game.

The white-knuckle, seven-hour drive back to Toronto in a blizzard didn’t even taint the experience.

2. 2019 Heritage Classic, Calgary vs. Winnipeg, at Mosaic Stadium in Regina.
Sure, there’s probably some recency bias at play here, but this was spectacular. The Roughriders faithful, the snow globe, the near-perfect ice sheet, the late Jets rally and all of the Old Style Pilsner a sellout crowd could drink on a very Canadian Saturday night.

3. 2008 Winter Classic, Pittsburgh vs. Buffalo, at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo.
This was Sidney Crosby stickhandling through small snow banks to score the shootout winner in the inaugural Winter Classic. A true classic. As an added bonus and piece of trivia, my buddy Colby Armstrong had a greasy goal on the first shift that afternoon.

4. 2009 Winter Classic, Detroit vs. Chicago, at Wrigley Field in Chicago.
An iconic baseball stadium and a game pitting a current and future NHL powerhouse going head-to-head on New Year’s Day. It was also the rare outdoor affair with lots of offence in what became a 6-4 Red Wings win.

5. 2015 Winter Classic, Chicago vs. Washington, at Nationals Park in Washington.
A day so grand that players warmed up on the field by kicking a soccer ball around in shorts. There was an Alex Ovechkin goal and a Troy Brouwer winner for the Caps with 13 seconds to play — against his former team, no less.

GAMES PLAYED

Fair enough if Patrick Marleau doesn’t want to focus on Gordie Howe’s all-time games played record, but it’s difficult for the rest of us to ignore how close he’s getting to the top of that list.

Marleau is just 102 behind Howe following Sunday’s visit to Ottawa.

He can climb to No. 3 overall — behind Howe and Mark Messier — if he suits up in the remaining games on the San Jose Sharks schedule this season. Given Marleau’s incredible durability over the last decade, it’s not a stretch to imagine it happening.

TORTS’ LAW

John Tortorella has a point.

The introduction of 3-on-3 overtime is arguably the NHL’s best rule tweak in a decade while the shootout seems so … 2005.

So when the Columbus Blue Jackets head coach started banging the drum this week about going to a longer overtime period and abolishing the skills competition entirely, he was speaking for a segment of hockey fans.

“I don’t know what we’re waiting for to get rid of this shootout stuff,” said Tortorella, per The Athletic’s Alison Lukan. “I know they are worried about the time limit [in overtime] … it’s not going to last long. If it goes past five minutes, it’s not going to be many more minutes after five. I think it’s just dynamite.”

With that in mind, I checked in to see if Tortorella had any support at the NHL level. Might the idea be discussed at next month’s general managers’ meeting in Toronto?

The answer I got was something along the lines of “No chance, not happening, why would you even ask that?”

Don’t let it deter you, Torts.

Keep fighting the good fight.

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