MONTREAL – On January 1, 2016, several Canadiens will get their shot at redemption to make amends for the battle lost on February 20, 2011.
Back in 2011, in a Siberian-like cold at McMahon Stadium - home of the Calgary Stampeders – the Canadiens braved the elements to go up against the Calgary Flames in the second Heritage Classic in NHL history. Unfortunately, the positive memories associated with that experience have been dampened somewhat by the 4-0 final score in favor of the Flames.
Thus, Max Pacioretty, Lars Eller, Tomas Plekanec, David Desharnais, P.K. Subban and Carey Price (if he's back in uniform), will look to forge new memories against the Boston Bruins in the 2016 NHL Winter Classic, which will take place on New Year’s Day at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts.
"The idea is to remind yourself to have fun out there and take in all that the event has to offer. Once the puck is in play, though, it's just like any other game. There are still two points at stake,” maintained Lars Eller, who at the time of the 2011 Heritage Classic was settling into his first full season in the NHL, and his first with the Canadiens.
"The first thing I remember is going on the ice for practice the day before to check out the venue for the first time. I can clearly remember the bitter cold, " continued Eller, who had to find ways to keep himself warm as he saw just 9:51 of ice time while playing on a line with Jeff Halpern and Ryan White. “When you go out on game day, you expect that kind of temperature, but for the first practice you have no idea what to expect. That first time is when everyone realizes they didn’t put on enough layers. Some guys had to return to the room to find extra layers, gloves, neck warmers, or basically anything else to keep you warm. "
The bitter cold affected much more than just the players’ internal thermostats that weekend, as the quality of the ice at the outdoor rink was the topic of discussion in the Canadiens’ dressing room.
"The hockey played that day was far from high quality. I remember there being a lot of missed passes and disjointed plays. It wasn’t what I would consider great hockey. Everyone looked a bit lost,” explained Eller, who contributed one of the 39 shots the Habs threw at Flames goaltender Mikka Kiprusoff.
“It was extremely cold and we played a horrible game," recalled captain Max Pacioretty. "I remember it being so cold that the maintenance workers were constantly trying to fix the ice, even during the warm-up.”
The cold was a determining factor throughout the event...just like the sun.
"The practice was fun, but dangerous," noted the 27-year-old sniper, who battled an array of environmental obstacles against the Flames at the 2011 Heritage Classic. "It was so sunny that I felt like I was going to hit someone every time I took a shot. I couldn’t tell where the puck went after I shot it, or if my teammates’ shots were coming close to hitting me. The sun played a major role in that game.”
That’s why the eight-year NHL veteran hopes to make the most of a special request he’s made of Pierre Gervais, the Canadiens’ equipment guru.
"Honestly, aside from a tinted visor to make sure it isn’t too bright out there, I don’t think I have any other requests," confessed Pacioretty, who admitted he did not have the courage to make that kind of request back in 2011. "I was 22 at the time, so I was not really in a position to make special requests. The 20-year-olds on the team today are very different. They aren’t afraid to make their demands."
Outdoor games have become a staple of the NHL calendar ever since the inaugural Heritage Classic between the Oilers and Canadiens was staged in 2003. This year’s Winter Classic will have a bit more animosity amid the fresh air in Foxborough, as the two longstanding Atlantic Division rivals face off with two more points up for grabs.
"The Winter Classic is always special, but it’s hard to beat the combination of a New Year’s Day rivalry game and a classic Canadiens and Bruins matchup. I know that all my friends and family will either be at the game or watching on TV at home," said the New Canaan, Connecticut native, who grew up not too far from neighboring Massachusetts. "It's a big scene. I expect a better performance from us and a better experience in general.”
Vincent Cauchy is a writer for canadiens.com. Translated by Jared Ostroff.