REGINA – Shortly after the eye-black and windburn had disappeared from his face, Matthew Tkachuk addressed what he thinks will be the biggest factor in Saturday’s Heritage Classic – the wind.
“When you’re going one way you feel like you’re skating like Paul Kariya,” said the Calgary Flames winger after a rare evening practice at the home of the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
“When you’re going the other way you feel like, well, me.”
A red, blue and green crowd of close to 33,000 pil-swillers will brave temperatures no warmer than freezing at Mosaic Stadium Saturday for an 8 p.m. local puck drop featuring the Flames and “host” Winnipeg Jets on Hockey Night in Canada.
There’s a 40 per cent chance of snow, which would add deliciously to a majestic setting the NHL has perfected by way of its previous 27 outdoor endeavours.
After a busy day of high traffic from both teams and their families, the ice received mixed reviews as it had clearly softened on the penalty-box side of the rink. It likely had plenty to do with daytime temperatures of 16 celsius. All were optimistic that colder temperatures and a day without the traffic of a morning skate would rectify the situation.
Still, the expectation is that the game will be much like the Flames’ 4-0 win over the Montreal Canadiens at a chilly McMahon Stadium in 2011 where the game plan was straightforward.
“It’s like in football when it’s snowing hard or it’s really wet, it turns into a ‘keeping it on the ground’ type of game,” said Tkachuk, well aware the game-time forecast calls for winds of 50 km/h.
“I think this might be sort of like that with us – playing simple. Just getting the puck out and shooting everything. There won’t be very many pretty plays made out there because the wind is such a big factor.”
Added Jets coach Paul Maurice, “the team that passes the puck the least, wins.”
To ensure the conditions don’t favour either team, a whistle will blow at the ten-minute mark of the third period, prompting a changing of ends.
“We’ll defer to the second half and take the wind,” joked Jets veteran Blake Wheeler, one of many players with cherished memories of pond hockey as a child.
“We’re worried about the ice because the slower the ice, the harder it is for us,” added Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck.
In a practice filled with battle drills and an old-time shootout contest, what stuck out were significant line changes for the Flames, which included putting Tkachuk on the top line with Johnny Gaudreau and Elias Lindholm up the middle.
Andrew Mangiapane, Sean Monahan and Sam Bennett made up the second line as Austin Czarnik will be out until at least Christmas following a lower-body injury suffered late Thursday, prompting another promotion for Alan Quine from the AHL’s Stockton Heat.
“We’re going to start that way, but everything is pretty fluid in our world right now,” said coach Bill Peters, who has Milan Lucic and Michael Frolik flanking Mikael Backlund on the third line.
“We need a change. We need to start playing a little more consistently. We think these lines are good and will help.”
The biggest worry both teams have coming into a game as novel as this is injury, which is exactly what the Jets had to deal with Friday. As the players warmed up in the stadium playing soccer and throwing a football, Mason Appleton slipped on the unstable field covering and will be lost for at least a month.
“He broke a bone in his foot trying to intercept a football,” confirmed Maurice.
“He’ll be out for a while. We feel for him. In a week’s time, he’s going to get verbally abused horribly for what happened, and how it happened, but right now you just feel for the guy.”
Most of the Flames wore tinted visors and eye black and said glare from the stadium lights wasn’t an issue during their evening practice.
David Rittich, who debuted his fancy, throwback pads and gloves, said tracking pucks wasn’t an issue, unlike the ice. He’ll get the start
“We don’t want those brown pads to go to waste,” laughed Peters.
The game marks the seventh time an NHL regular-season game will be played in Saskatchewan, which is a fitting place for a neutral site game that will feature a stadium mixed evenly with Flames, Jets and Roughriders jerseys.
Designed to be a celebration of the game wherever they’re played, these outdoor games do wonders to take over a city. Everywhere you walked downtown on Friday there were jerseys from all three teams being worn in pubs and restaurants. Whether it be Bushwakker Brewing Company or Casino Regina, chants for various team broke out spontaneously all day long.
“It’s definitely a spectacle but once the puck drops it’s an NHL game with two points on the line,” said Jets defenceman Josh Morrissey, who grew up in Calgary.
“It’s such a great province and I’ve been looking forward to coming back for this.”
So has the rest of Saskatchewan.