Heritage Classic perfectly recaptures pond hockey vibes

Winnipeg Jets' Nikolaj Ehlers (27) moves the puck away from Calgary Flames' Travis Hamonic (24) during the second period of the NHL Heritage Classic outdoor hockey game in Regina on Saturday, October 26, 2019. (Liam Richards/CP)

REGINA – If the goal of the Heritage Classic was to try recapturing the scene, emotions, spirit and feelings that come with pond hockey, it worked.

“I never grew up playing in an atmosphere like this, but it feels right,” said American-born Matthew Tkachuk of a snow globe scene at Mosaic Stadium that had 33,518 Pil-swilling fans soaking up the Canadiana.

“It feels like that’s what hockey should be and what legends of the past grew up playing. You hear all the greats talk about growing up playing outside.

“With the snow causing the ice to be slower, you’re falling, you’re losing the puck, bounces all over the place – you knew it was going to be a low scoring game.”

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He wasn’t done.

“What a great time it was,” he continued.

“What a great host in Regina. The ice was perfect, the fans were into it. Overall it was a perfect experience.”

This, coming from a player on the losing side.

In the midst of a Grey Cup-type setting in the middle of a snow-covered football stadium, a neutral-site NHL game was played Saturday with two regular-season points on the line.

With the Flames clinging to a one-goal lead late in the game, it was Calgary-born Josh Morrissey who added to the delicious storyline by tying things up with a power-play blast with five minutes remaining. Yes, the same Josh Morrissey who played junior hockey up the road in Prince Albert and had grandparents who spent their lives as Roughriders season ticket holders.

All part of the perfect script.

“Definitely at Christmas, growing up, my grandparents would get us Rider jerseys and hats and stuff like that – it was tough growing up in Calgary as a Riders fan,” he chuckled.

“I’m definitely thinking a lot about my grandparents – they were season ticket holders for a lot of years. They were huge fans so it definitely means a lot and it’s nostalgic to be here in (the Roughriders) room and play here.”

As if the damage done by a Riders fan wasn’t hurtful enough for Calgary fans, the overtime winner was scored by Edmonton native Bryan Little, converting a 2-on-1 pass from Kyle Connor midway through the extra frame.

It was the 45th shot on David Rittich, who looked and played spectacular in his throwback brown pads and gloves, complete with a tuque over his mask.

“Cold? Not really,” shrugged the Czech netminder when asked if a wind-chill of minus-12 affected him.

“Do you see how many shots they had?”

Indeed, he was kept busy in a game in which both teams vowed to keep things simple and cherish the simplicity of shots on goal.

“It wasn’t that bad,” he said of the conditions, which included gently falling snow the entire game.

“Same for both sides, so I can’t say something wrong. The ice was really good.”

The fact that the Calgary Flames felt they coughed this one up will sting for a day or two.

But the memory of a picture postcard night will endure.

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“It’s frustrating the way we lost the game, because it’s a normal game at the end of the day, but I think when you look back at it in a little bit of a time it was a really cool event,” said Flames defenceman Travis Hamonic, whose 600th NHL game coincided with the Regina love-in.

“The province and the city did a really good job. It was really done first class. A really cool event and fun to be a part of.”

Elias Lindholm’s game-opening, power-play goal late in the second period sparked plenty of controversy as Tkachuk kept the puck inside Winnipeg’s blue line by batting a clearing attempt out of the air.

Jets coach Paul Maurice challenged the play, as a lunging Tkachuk made contact with the puck around shoulder height. Reviews concluded that because he was hunched as he made contact, the goal would stand and the Jets were handed a penalty for the challenge.

“Thinking back to the baseball days when I was younger,” Tkachuk, when asked what his mindset was as he batted it down.

“Probably luck more than anything.”

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Five minutes later, a dangerous Adam Lowry hit from behind on a prone Oliver Kylington sparked a melee with one second left in the second period. As the defenceless Kylington crumpled to the ice, lying motionless, Rittich raced over to protect his fallen teammate by shielding and dragging him from the nine-player scrum of fury that ensued.

Kylington returned for the third period, which saw the Flames continually dump the puck out, until the Jets finally clicked with Mark Giordano in the penalty box.

“Playing outside you feel like you have a lot of energy – it feels good in the lungs,” said the Flames captain.

“A great experience, but tough to give one up in the last five.”

Winnipeggers who traveled 573 kilometres from the east and Flames fans who came 756 kilometres from the west spent the weekend trading chants, cheers and barbs around town in an atmosphere identical to the Grey Cup.

The largest cheer of the night from the sold out gathering came from Roughriders fans when the score of the team’s afternoon win over Edmonton was shown on the massive endzone scoreboard.

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