EDMONTON — It was an act to be followed at one’s own peril, a massive success that seemed impossible to duplicate. But 20 years have passed since they played the first regular season outdoor game in the National Hockey League’s modern era, in late November, 2003, right here at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton.
“There’s a great debate,” began the NHL’s Sr. V.P. Steve Mayer, in Edmonton to pump the game between the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames, set for Oct. 29 at Commonwealth, “that the game in Buffalo (in 2008) was the first outdoor game — which is not true at all.”
No, the Oilers organization were the authors of that first Heritage Classic, with the sometimes skeptical hand of the NHL at their back. That game was to the NHL’s Stadium Series what the tube skate was to today’s thousand-dollar, high tech hockey wheels.
The temperature was minus-18.6 degrees Celsius at puck drop between the Oilers and Montreal Canadiens, before 57,167 frigid folks who had already sat through an alumni game earlier on a cold November day.
“I don’t know how they do it,” then-Oilers general manager Kevin Lowe said afterwards. “I think it’s the fans making a statement that, ‘Hey, this is where we live. It’s cold at times in the wintertime, but you’ve got to go on and live your life.’
“I think they’re making a statement about how, ‘We embrace the event, we embrace the team, the city, the province and our country.’”
Alas, the ice was garbage, flaking away under the heavy skates of NHL players. Today they can make decent ice on Lake Tahoe, or inside Dodger Stadium. But in 2003?
“I have to hand it to those people who did this [built the rink], but the ice, it was terrible,” said Edmonton defenceman Marc-Andre Bergeron, whose Oilers lost 4-3 to Montreal. “It was (lousy) hockey tonight, no doubt about that. Not any finesse plays tonight, for sure. Dump it in, rim it around, then go and get it.”
There are still issues to contend with, despite the expertise gained in three decades that have taken the league from Caesar’s Palace — where the lights went on and the grasshoppers showed up by the thousands — to Lake Tahoe, where sunshine became a major problem.
The only outdoor game Connor McDavid has experienced came in Winnipeg in 2016, where a seat in the penalty box gave him time to drink the scene in.
“This is sweet. It’s sick,” McDavid recalls thinking that day. “What I remember about the Winnipeg game is, we’re on a big delay because there’s some sun glare. We waited, like, a few hours. Then we ended up going out there and our zone was still covered in the sun — but somehow it was safe enough to play.”
Moving the game up nearly a month to before Halloween all but eliminates the chances of a game that was as cold as the Winter Classic played at Target Field in Minneapolis on Jan. 1, 2022, where the game time temperature was minus-22 Celsius. That was the coldest outdoor game ever played.
“It’s evolved. We’ve learned a lot over the years,” Mayer said. “We have a mantra with the league: ‘Let’s make the next one bigger and better than the last one.’ And we think we’ve made them really unique and different. You know, they may have lost their luster globally, because we’ve done quite a few of them, and gone to a lot a lot of cities. But man, when you’re in that market where the games happening, it’s incredible.
“In the local market this is the biggest thing going, and that’s what everybody’s gonna be talking about in Edmonton for weeks leading up to the game and then after the game’s over. That’s something that I really appreciate.”
Of course, there are still good seats available. That’s why they held a press conference at stately old Commonwealth Stadium on Wednesday.
And it should be noted, now that the Elks of the Canadian Football League have won a home game, that bet — “Who will win the first game in 2023 at Commonwealth? The Elks? Or the Oilers” — is off the bookie’s board.
They still haven’t announced all the bands for the festival that will surround the weekend, or the special uniforms that Flames and Oilers fans will be free to purchase at the usual exorbitant prices.
But those announcements will come, as surges in ticket buying is required.
Remember, this isn’t the NHL’s first rodeo.
Not like it was the last time they walked into Commonwealth Stadium.