The Great Outdoors
Frank Supovitz, vice president of the NHL's Events and Entertainment Group, never has shied away from a challenge. For that reason, he welcomed the idea of the NHL hosting an outdoor game -- a radical notion that will become a reality this fall when the Edmonton Oilers host the Montreal Canadiens on Nov. 22 at Edmonton's Commonweath Stadium.
While most people were predisposed to ticking off reasons why the game could not work when it was suggested, Supovitz was intrigued with the idea of making the concept become a reality. And he surrounded himself with other like-minded people that also wanted to make the idea a reality.
Dan Craig, the NHL's ice technician, immediately embraced the idea. Craig, who handles all of the ice issues with the League's special events, helped the University of Michigan and Michigan State University stage their wildly successful outdoor game last year. Through that experience, he knew that the NHL's outdoor concept could be feasible with the right game plan and some hard work.
Plus, Craig spent more than 12 years as the ice technician at Edmonton's facility before joining the NHL, so he has added rooting interest to make the outdoor facility as spectacular as possible.
"It's a pretty straight-forward job for me," said Craig, who built a rink from scratch in Japan three years ago for the GameOne series there. "We know how to do it and we have the materials already in place. Hopefully, there shouldn't be any major problems."
Supovitz also had an enthusiastic group from the Oilers to help the dream become a reality. The franchise's front office wanted to do something unprecedented to celebrate the club's 25th anniversary. Supovitz says the genesis of the Heritage Classic concept occurred when the Edmonton Oilers approached his department with the novel idea of hosting outdoors an NHL All-Star Game in their city. That plan, however was not feasible for several reasons, says Supovitz.
But, Supovitz couldn't, and wouldn't, let go of the concept.
"About a week later, I was scratching my head, still smiling about this plan because it was so audacious," says Supovitz. "I knew that we had to do something with it."
That something turned out to be the Heritage Classic, a multi-tiered celebration of the NHL's 86th anniversary. The NHL regular-season game between Montreal and the Oilers will serve as the centerpiece of the celebration. The celebration will also feature a MegaStars Game, earlier that day, featuring alumni from the two teams battling it out. Wayne Gretzky and Guy Lafleur, both Hall of Fame inductees, are the headliners of that event.
The NHL has never staged an outdoor game in its history, so November's event is uncharted territory. That, however, only makes it more exciting for Supovitz and his group.
"This is clearly something very, very special," said Supovitz, who has been working on the details of the game for more than a year. "Where we are sticking our necks out is that we are playing a real bona-fide NHL game, that counts, outdoors. To me, that is incredibly exciting."
And, the excitement has spread like wildfire, especially in the hockey-mad province of Alberta. Fans, the media and even players have embraced the idea of the sport, at its highest level, returning to its roots as a game played outdoors on a pond. In fact, pond hockey, or shinny, is the introduction most players have to the sport, especially in Canada.
"The Heritage Classic is what playing in the Heartland of Hockey is all about -- pulling on a toque, bundling up, and getting out into the great outdoors," says Patrick LaForge, the president and CEO of the Oilers. "We're turning back the clock for the Heritage Classic, and giving fans the chance to relive hockey's golden heritage. It's going to be an unforgettable weekend for hockey fans everywhere!"
The players themselves share that enthusiasm. Shawn Horcoff, a young star for the Oilers, started his career playing outdoors in Castlegar, British Columbia. He fondly remembers countless hours spent honing his skills between organized indoor games.
"It almost has a traditional aspect to it," said Horcoff, who was working out in Venice, Calif., to prepare for the season "That is where hockey started -- outdoors. I'm excited about the game and already looking forward to it."
The feeling is similar in Montreal. Canadiens President Pierre Boivin says his team is also embracing the concept of returning to hockey's roots.
"Many hockey players and fans in Canada enjoy playing the game outdoors and this very special event at Commonwealth Stadium will bring us back to the origins of the game we so dearly love," Boivin said. "It is a wonderful initiative by the Oilers that will generate a lot of interest and excitement for people in Edmonton and for hockey fans from coast to coast tuned in to Hockey Night in Canada."
Hockey fans have also embraced the concept, validating Supovitz's belief that the idea was too good to let pass by.
"There's no doubt about it, we're overwhelmed by the (ticket) demand," said Allan Watt, vice president of marketing & communications for the Oilers. "The phones have been ringing off the hook, fans have been clamoring on the web site, and everyone is desperate for more information on the Heritage Classic. What started out as a simple idea for an Oilers 25th Anniversary game, has blossomed into an international event that the world will be watching very closely."