Why Maple Leafs–Sabres Classic 'feels like so much more' than a game

Hamilton resident Stephen Brunt reflects on the deep, proud, and complicated history of hockey in Hamilton with an essay ahead of Sunday’s Heritage Classic between the Buffalo Sabres and Toronto Maple Leafs.

HAMILTON, ONT. – The Winter Classic was so big in the Sandin household, they borrowed elements from the NHL’s outdoor spectacle to create their own New Year’s Day tradition.

Six times zones away, in Uppsala, Sweden, Mom and Dad would take Rasmus and his older brother out to a frozen pond for some shinny. But they’d do it up big.

They would light up fireworks for the boys to skate through and introduce them in loud voices, just like in the show.

“We tried to make it as much as a Winter Classic as possible,” smiles Sandin, no doubt thrilled to get over a recent illness in time to play at Sunday’s Heritage Classic at Tim Hortons Field. It’ll be his first outdoor game and the league’s 35th.

"Me and my wife Helena versus Rasmus and Linus," father Patric Sandin says. "It was just a great time."

Crazy to think. Sandin, 22, was three years old when the first Heritage Classic was waged at another CFL field, Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium. He was only seven when Sidney Crosby played shootout hero for his Pittsburgh Penguins in the inaugural Winter Classic, over the same Buffalo Sabres Sandin and the Toronto Maple Leafs will meet halfway in Hamilton.

“It's always something you've been dreaming of since you were a little kid, skating on ponds," Sandin says. “It’s gonna be a lot of fun, for sure. And something you're not gonna experience too many times in your life.”

So established are the NHL’s open-air showcases, kids these days, they’ve grown up fantasizing of throwing on the throwback sweater, smearing on the eye black, and braving the elements in a game that counts.

And yet, they still mean something to the old dogs, too.

The Sabres’ Craig Anderson, 40, is the most senior goalie in the league. He just secured his 300th career win last week and is playing out the season for a team that couldn’t see the playoff picture if it got a pair of stilts and stood atop the Niagara Escarpment. Heck, he’s already played in two of these things and pitched a shutout for Ottawa in the NHL 100 Classic.

Been there, done that, right?

Nah.

When Anderson assumed position between the pipes for Buffalo’s practice on the Hamilton Tiger-Cats’ turf Saturday evening, all the feels returned.

“You’re on the ice, the wind’s blowing, you’re cold, you’re all bundled up, and kinda the pure joy of hockey takes over,” Anderson says.

“It’s the kids’ game.”

Jason Spezza, 38, would play this matinee for free if he could, instead of the $12.75 he usually collects for game days. This will be Spezza’s first “outdoor” game since 54,194 fans rammed BC Place in 2014 to see his Senators take on the Canucks, and they opened the roof.

Spezza fondly recalls Dad dropping him off to play at whatever Toronto-area rink would have him, and how playing shinny against grown men helped sharpen his skills.

“I still get outside and skate quite a bit,” Spezza reveals. “Outdoor hockey I love. It’s very pure, in its finest form. That’s what we love as kids—unstructured play.”

There is something symbolic about Toronto and Buffalo — and 24,000 of their fans — huddling together around a rink situation an easy reach for both sides.

A border will be crossed.

The socializing won’t be so distanced.

Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe is a man who’s spent the bulk of his NHL career calling numbers and shouting at refs in empty arenas. He’s given this weekend plenty of thought, about what the gathering means for family and friends, about this Classic serving as a beacon of sorts for better days as we crawl out from the pandemic’s grip.

Under the guidelines and lockdowns, Keefe admits his wife and sons have felt a disconnect from his profession, his passion. Saturday’s family skate, with team photos and children buzzing and girlfriends laughing, it meant something.

“Having kids running around the office or in the dressing room is something I haven’t had for two seasons here now,” Keefe says. “Those are the thing we really miss through all of this. That’s what I’m most excited about.”

John Tavares played one outdoor game as Islanders captain, but this will be his first as a Leaf. His two young sons, his wife, his in-laws, and his parents are all in town to skate, to celebrate.

It brings the captain back to Saturdays in the city, when he’d race to good friend Sam Gagner’s backyard rink to play after practice.

The Gagners would fire up the pipes in an effort to keep the ice cold in early spring. Even with the sun beating up the sheet, Sam and John would stride through slush half an inch thick.

“We’d be out there six, seven hours, all day. Just playing,” Tavares says. “Even through the month of March.”

Slush should not be on the menu Sunday.

The forecast at field level is calling for –1°C with scattered flurries and bitter 30 km/h winds.

“Holy… crap, it’s cold,” Mitch Marner exclaimed, ducking into the warmth after Saturday night’s test drive.

William Nylander says he couldn’t control his own stick during practice, the gusts were so whippy.

“The cold—that was the first wow factor. The wind was the second,” agrees Sabres coach Don Granato, who believes headwinds will influence the game period to period. “That’s the mystique of these games, all the elements you don’t deal with on a regular basis.

“You’re at the mercy of weather and temperature and wind.”

Yes, weather is the great equalizer in these events.

Keep it simple. Embrace the elements. Tug on a turtleneck. Soak in the moment, young and old.

“You want to enjoy it, but ultimately you want to win,” says Morgan Rielly, ready to participate in his fourth outdoor game, more than anyone involved.

“The ones you win are a lot more enjoyable than the ones you lose. I remember that one in Washington [in 2018]. We go out and lose. We don’t play very well. And you leave thinking they’re a dumb idea,” Rielly says.

“You win one, and it’s the greatest thing ever.”

One-Timers: Craig Anderson versus Petr Mrazek is your goaltending matchup. “Particularly with it being an outdoor game, I don’t want to put [rookie callup Erik] Källgren in that spot,” Keefe said.…Travis Dermott, Nick Robertson and Kyle Clifford will be the Maple Leafs’ healthy scratches. “A game like this, maybe they should expand the rosters or something like that to keep everyone involved,” Keefe said. “But it’s part of the deal.”…The players will sit on heated benches — unless they’re serving a penalty…. The Sabres had not seen Drake Caggiula since he left the group to undergo season-ending surgery on a herniated disk. He rejoined them for Saturday’s team photo at the outdoor practice. “It was a good moment for all the guys,” Granato says. “These guys have become very tight as a group.”… More and more, we’re appreciating deadpan Auston Matthews: “Not much outdoor ice in Arizona.”

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