On January 1st, the Buffalo Sabres will host the Pittsburgh Penguins to kickoff the New Year in an outdoor game at Buffalo’s Ralph Wilson Stadium in front of an expected crowd of over 70,000 in the AMP Energy NHL Winter Classic.
While it will be a monumental afternoon for the NHL and the game of hockey in general, it will by no means be the first large-scale outdoor game ever contested.
A total of 47 current NHL players have previously suited up in outdoor contests, including current Avalanche players John-Michael Liles, Ryan Smyth and Jose Theodore.
Liles got the first crack out of that group, playing for Michigan State University against arch-rival University of Michigan on Oct. 6, 2001, in a contest tabbed as “The Cold War.” The event, which set the world record for the largest crowd ever at an ice hockey game with 74,544 in attendance, was staged at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Mich.
“It was definitely something I’ll remember forever,” said Liles, who was a junior defenseman on that Spartan squad. “Just the atmosphere – people treated it like a football game and were tailgating beforehand. We did the walk-over like the football team does from our rink over to the football stadium. Everybody lined the sidewalk and cheered.”
In typical style of the bitter rivalry the game came down to the wire, with former Spartan and current Atlanta Thrasher Jim Slater scoring with 47 seconds left in regulation to account for the 3-3 final score.
“Being down with a minute left and then tying it, that was the loudest I’ve ever heard anything,” added Liles. “It was something that you really couldn’t put into words. It’s like playing pond hockey when you’re younger except it’s in front of 75,000 people.”
|Ryan Smyth took part in the NHL Heritage Classic on Nov. 22, 2003 |
According to a recent report by the Detroit News, Michigan hockey coach Red Berenson and Michigan State coach Rick Comley confirmed another outdoor game was in the works for next December at Ford Field.
“I’m sure they’ll do a good job,” said Liles of a prospective “Cold War II”. “Our idea at the time was so new. Nobody had really talked about it too much, but when it happened it was such an amazing feat, considering that it was 55 degrees all week and the day before it dropped down into the teens. Everything seemed to work out really well.”
Just over two years after the Cold War, the Edmonton Oilers and Montreal Canadiens faced off in the NHL’s first regular season outdoor game, dubbed the Heritage Classic. On Nov. 22, 2003, an NHL record 57,000 fans braved sub-zero temperatures to watch Montreal top Edmonton by a 4-3 count at Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium.
Current Avalanche teammates Ryan Smyth and Jose Theodore both took part in that historic contest, albeit on opposite sides of the ice, with Smyth suiting up for the Oilers and Theodore manning the crease for the Canadiens.
“Obviously it was very cold, as everyone knows,” said Smyth, who had four shots on goal during the game. “It was exciting to be a part of. I don’t know if you can duplicate something like that – that cold, how the atmosphere was – Edmonton did a good job with it and it was a lot of fun.”
In an effort to tackle the bitter cold, heated benches were used during the game, but according to Smyth, the effort was almost counterproductive. Players had a hard time making the extreme adjustment from the warm benches to the chilly Alberta air when it was their turn to take a shift.
|Jose Theodore made use of a tuque in an attempt to battle sub-zero temperatures during the Heritage Classic |
Smyth and the other skaters likely couldn’t feel their noses, fingers and toes that day in Edmonton. One other thing that Smyth joked he didn’t feel was any sympathy for the goaltenders, including Theodore, who didn’t have access to the heated benches like the skaters did.
While making an effort to stay warm, Theodore also made a fashion statement by donning a knitted Canadiens cap during the game that became a symbol forever linked to the Heritage Classic.
“It was actually my brother’s idea. He said it would look pretty cool, like the vintage goalies in the 1920s,” said Theodore, who stopped 34-of-37 shots to earn the victory. “Back then when they played outside, the goalies had the tuque on. I tried it out for warm-ups and the guys on my team said it looked pretty good, and I should wear it in the game.”
So, did the now legendary cap help Theodore battle the freezing temperatures?
“Not really, I don’t think so,” said the netminder. “But it was fun to be part of, obviously. I’m happy we won the game, and it was a great experience.”