Memories of the Heritage Classic

The Heritage Classic was special for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the all-time greats who played that day Photo: Dave Sandford/Getty

EDMONTON — It was hovering around -20 Celsius at that original Heritage Classic in Edmonton back in 2003, when a welder from Fort St. John B.C. was so overcome with excitement at being at the National Hockey League’s first big outdoor game, he just couldn’t take it anymore. So he ripped off all of his clothes—except for a T-shirt and one sock–and streaked Commonwealth Stadium that Nov. 22 day, exactly a decade ago. As security people chased him down it was Don Cherry, folklore has it, who offered the line, “Just hold up a blanket. He’ll come to you.”

Eventually ol’ Sprinty McShrivel ended up in a room with a couple of cops pleading not to be kicked out, recalls Oilers president Pat LaForge, a former Molson rep who empathizes with fits of passion fuelled by product. “We eventually got him to sign a document stating that he would never attend another outdoor hockey game between the Montreal Canadiens and the Edmonton Oilers at Commonwealth Stadium until he was 50 years old.” Then they let him back in to see the rest of the game. “Of course,” LaForge says.

The 2003 Heritage Classic was the Mother Of All Outdoor Games—literally. This season alone it has spawned six outdoor progeny: the Winter Classic in Ann Arbor, two games at Yankee Stadium, and one each at Soldier Field, Dodger Stadium and B.C. Place. “There are so many of them now,” says Oiler Taylor Hall, who as a 12-year-old skipped a hockey game to drive up from Calgary to watch the game with his father, “it almost doesn’t seem as special as it once was. They’re playing a game in B.C. But it’s indoors?”

When we left Commonwealth Stadium that day, we had signed off our column in the National Post with this quote by Wayne Gretzky, who had gone scoreless in the alumni game that day. “If I was going to play in another one, it would have to be a special situation like this. And even then…. How do you duplicate this weekend?” Nobody told the NHL that, and the cash cow that has resulted will fill many a league and NHLPA coffers. Gretzky was right though—it is impossible to duplicate what occurred that frosty day, from the minus-18.6 at puck drop, to the heroic feat of the fans who spent seven hours to get to game’s end. In Commonwealth Stadium terms, it was the coldest Western Final in some years.

What unfolded was a series of vignettes, from Montreal goalie Jose Theodore’s tuque, stretched over his mask and secured to the sides of his mask with two-sided tape, to the sight of Mark Messier and Guy Lafleur clearing the ice with shovels as snow fell on the Legends Game. “As a kid, the losers would have to do the ice for the next game coming on,” Messier said afterwards. “It was bragging rights, and while one team was shoveling, the other was inside the shack getting warm.” There were 57,167 fans who would have loved one of those “shacks,” but instead endured to see the Oilers alumni beat Montreal 2-0, while the Canadiens beat the Oilers 4-3 in an actual NHL game worth two points in the standings. Fans paid $125 per ticket. “It was seven hours of hockey, with an hour between games. It was too much,” Laforge says. “If we had it to do over, we’d separate it by two days. So the alumni could have their moment, the respect and the coverage.”

I recall sidling up next to the Montreal Gazette‘s Red Fisher, the eldest living member of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association, in the press box, and sipping a Styrofoam cup of the Chivas Regal he had brought along. Red covered the Richard Riots in Montreal and the Summit Series, but never had he seen this many people watch an NHL game in these conditions. The warmest place in Commonwealth was the heated benches, where players joked they’d rather stay than play. Or inside the Zambonis, as the NHL’s ice guru had three machines flooding constantly during the intermissions. “Just kept pouring on the hot water. Keep driving,” Dan Craig recalls. “At least for the first five or six minutes of the period, the ice wouldn’t fall apart.”

In the end however, even though the agreed upon temperature limit was being pushed, the momentum was too much to be stopped. The legends had played in the warmer light of day, and 57,000 people had endured to see the real NHL game. There was no feasible way they could call the game off at that point. “Minus-25 was the number,” LaForge says. “We were hovering at minus-22, -23, and in the end, (GMs) Bob Gainey and Kevin Lowe, Gary (Bettman) and Bob (Goodenow) wanted to play. Nobody even talked about the number all day long.”

Alas, under men this size and skating for two points, the ice could not hold up. “It came off in chucks like this,” says Ryan Smyth, making a circle of his hands, the size of a discus. “I have to hand it to those people who did this (built the rink), but the ice, it was terrible,” then-Oilers defenceman Marc-Andre Bergeron said post-game. “It was shitty hockey tonight, no doubt about that. Not any finesse plays tonight, for sure.”

Today, 10 years on, and there is still a bit of marvel left in that first Heritage Classic. The awful ice, the frozen beer, the naked welder and that one, last, serpent-like glove save by Grant Fuhr. “All of that made the day,” says Smyth, a veteran of more than 1,200 games now. “It ranks up there with a game seven, the Olympics. Oh yeah. Ranks right up there.”

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