BROSSARD – Pierre Gervais’ office at the Bell Sports Complex is a veritable hockey museum.
His walls are decorated with photographs of him alongside NHL stars, along with other priceless artifacts tied to not only his work with the Canadiens, but also the Canadian contingents he’s helped claim gold over the years at the Olympic Games. Photographs of his children are there, too, as are awards recognizing his remarkable years of service in the hockey world.
Among the vast array of artifacts in Gervais’ private workspace are precious souvenirs commemorating his experience working at a pair of outdoor games – the Heritage Classic contests in both 2003 and 2011.
“The first time in Edmonton, we were pioneers when it came to outdoor games. It was the first-ever NHL event of its kind. We were a little bit like guinea pigs at the time,” recalled Gervais, the Canadiens’ equipment manager, who is in his 29th season with the squad.
Having always been a Quebec resident, Gervais knew full well just how cold November could prove to be – but not to this degree. If the temperature at the beginning of December 2015 was still well above the freezing point, the night of November 22, 2003 in Edmonton was a far different story. It was -18 degrees Celsius, to which you have to add – or subtract – the wind chill factor as well. In the end, the Canadiens and Oilers clashed in -30°C weather.
“At the time, I remember that Mr. Gillett gave me carte blanche when it came to my expenses for the event. Everything needed to be perfect, regardless of how much it cost,” recalled Gervais, who calls Trois-Rivieres home. “That’s what I do. Nobody had experience in that department. We were starting from scratch.”
With that in mind, Gervais decided to reach out to a good friend for assistance, someone who had experience with a different kind of cold-weather sport – football. After all, NFLers often ply their trade in extreme weather conditions as well.
“I contacted my good buddy, Red Batty, the equipment manager for the Green Bay Packers. We know that it’s really cold there, and even if it isn’t the same sport, he gave me some really good advice about some things we wouldn’t necessarily have thought about,” explained Gervais. “The most important thing is to keep the players dry. You need to buy three of everything for them so they can change in between periods.”
The 2003 Heritage Classic went down in history as an iconic event, but it wasn’t only because it was the first of its kind. A particular decision made by one of Gervais’ assistants also made it especially unique.
“Everyone remembers the famous tuque Jose Theodore sported years ago. It was my assistant at the time, Bobby Boulanger, who came up with the idea,” offered Gervais, referencing the famous piece of headwear that led to a few legendary clichés. “Theo told him that the top of his head was cold, so Bobby did what he could for him. Today, we just can’t do something like that.”
If keeping players warm on the ice is one thing, keeping them warm on the bench is something completely different. It might seem rather simple, but it’s actually quite complex.
“In Edmonton, there were large pipes that carried hot air onto the bench. You couldn’t stand in front of the pipes because it was too hot and the second you moved a few centimeters, you’d be frozen stiff,” explained Gervais, who boasts more than 2,500 games of experience in professional hockey on his resume. “It’s also a little bit weird to have warm drinks on the bench. The medical staff makes sure to have drinks like chicken broth and tea on hand, among other things. It’s a huge change from the traditional Gatorade option.”
On that subject, Gervais says he hasn’t really received any special requests as of yet from any of Michel Therrien’s troops.
“The guys have fun. Before hitting the ice, some might be a little bit worried. They still have to perform, though. In the end, there’s a hockey game to win. They’re nervous, but when it’s over, they’re relieved and they realize what they experienced,” confessed the three-time Olympic gold medal winner. “Hockey players are creatures of habit. It’s very tough to change their routines. If a guy is used to not changing his socks in between periods, he’d probably risk enduring the cold instead of switching things up.”
It remains to be seen what weather conditions await the Canadiens at the 2016 NHL Winter Classic. After Edmonton at -30°C and Calgary at -25°C, something like -4°C would be just about perfect.
“We’re ready for anything,” concluded Gervais, who admits he’ll be transporting at least two or three extra cases of additional items during the road trip, which is especially necessary given that he’ll be bringing along special Winter Classic game and practice jerseys to mark the occasion. “I was nervous in Edmonton. I was a little bit less nervous about Calgary, though. These days, I’m not checking the forecast at all.”
Vincent Cauchy is a writer for canadiens.com. Translated by Matt Cudzinowski.