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The Pioneers

by Staff Writer / Montréal Canadiens

MONTREAL -- Outdoor games may now be commonplace in the NHL, yet that wasn’t always the case. It took a few brave souls to help get the ball rolling on a cold night in Edmonton.

Hockey games have been played outdoors for over a century. Looking to stay true to its roots, the NHL found a special way to celebrate that tradition, calling on players from the Canadiens and Oilers to help honor that history of the game on November 22, 2003.

After seeing the success of the open-air game played between the University of Michigan and Michigan State in 2001, the league began exploring the possibility of taking the game outside at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton.

Highlights from the 2003 Heritage Classic

“I remember when I heard the announcement that we were going to be playing outdoors against the Oilers and I just thought, ‘Wow ! That’s really cool’,” recalled former Habs blue-liner and current Canadiens player development coach, Patrice Brisebois. “It was like being a kid again in Atom or Pee-Wee, when we would sometimes practice on the outdoor rink in our neighborhood. But after my initial excitement wore off a little I remembered how cold Edmonton winters can be.”

Brisebois and his teammates weren’t the only ones worrying about the weather. With just one earlier outdoor NHL game to use as a blueprint, Gary Bettman and his colleagues at the league’s head office were entering relatively uncharted waters. In the lone open-air game that had previously been held in Las Vegas in 1991, a preseason match-up between the Kings and Rangers, the teams squared off in 30ºC heat – a far cry from what awaited the Canadiens and Oilers in Edmonton.

As the technicians worked day and night to ensure the ice was perfect for game day, Montreal’s equipment staff worked overtime to stockpile provisions to help the team stay warm in the bitter Alberta cold.

“We may have been venturing into the unknown, but we weren’t nervous at all; we had the best equipment staff in the league,” lauded Brisebois of head equipment manager Pierre Gervais and his crew. “They were so well-prepared, it was unbelievable. They had everything for us, including all the gear NFL players wear when they have to play in those tough winter games. We were ready for war with that stuff.”

The Habs had a chance to give their new heat gear a test-drive at practice at Commonwealth Stadium 24 hours before puck drop. Some players had an easier time adapting to the frigid conditions than others.

“You could feel the excitement in the air the week leading up to the game. We were so pumped just to get to practice outdoors,” shared current Phoenix Coyotes forward and former Hab Mike Ribeiro. “I won’t name names, but there were one or two guys who were still complaining about the cold, though.”

Mike Ribeiro still refuses to name which teammates complained the most about the cold in Edmonton.

Brisebois, for his part, did confirm the Habs were too focused on surviving that first practice to even consider how to stay warm come game time.

“When we played the game against the Oilers, we could come back to the bench to warm up after every shift, but in practice we were out there freezing the whole time,” he emphasized. “We stayed out there an entire hour. Everything was good once we started moving, but it was a whole other story when we had to wait between drills.”

Despite the frigid temperatures, some players left the comfort of their rooms and braved the elements a few hours earlier than usual on game day to catch a glimpse of the legendary former Habs and Oilers who laced up their skates as part of the festivities.

“The alumni game between the Canadiens and Oilers was really special. Getting the chance to see guys like [Wayne] Gretzky, [Mark] Messier, [Guy] Lafleur and [Guy] Carbonneau hit the ice doesn’t happen every day,” offered Ribeiro. “Watching them all out there at once was a really unique thing. I didn’t get a chance to go and talk to them to see what they thought about the ice or get tips on how to handle the cold or anything, because we had to focus on the game right after.”

Based on the festive atmosphere engulfing Edmonton, it was easy to forget the game still meant a valuable two points in the standings. While the Habs did their best to keep their eyes on the prize, the players couldn’t help but feel a little awestruck by the scope of the event.

“When we walked out of the tunnel and saw the stadium packed to capacity, we were blown away by how loud the fans were,” recalled Brisebois. “It was something else. Even in an open stadium, the atmosphere was amazing. It really took your breath away.”

In fact, those breaths became part of the iconic imagery of the day, each one becoming increasingly visible as the thermostat dipped steadily. At puck drop, the mercury hovered around -15ºC. With the forecast calling for a dip in temperatures as the night went on, the league offered the players a chance to cancel the game. Wanting no part in disappointing the fans, the players hit the ice and braved the cold.

Francis Bouillon is one of two current members of the Canadiens who took part in the Heritage Classic in 2003.

“It was hard to breathe normally. When you exercise outside in the cold, it takes more energy,” described Canadiens defenseman Francis Bouillon, who took part at the 2003 Heritage Classic. “The funny thing is, we were excited to hop on the ice because it was almost too hot on the bench with the heaters. Once we got on the ice, our shifts were still a little shorter than usual because of the cold, though.”

By the end of the third period, the players were starting to lose their battle with the elements as late-game temperatures dropped as low as -28ºC. Unlike the rest of his teammates, Jose Theodore was able to do something to help retain body heat: wear a tuque. The Habs may have done their best to bundle up, but the wind still managed to sneak its way past their thermal gear.

“I really started to feel the windchill in the third period. After 30 seconds on the ice, my neck started feeling really exposed. Let’s just say I was happy to get back to the bench,” laughed Brisebois, who led the Canadiens with 24:21 in ice time. “I remember Jose would come to the bench during every TV timeout to change his blocker and his trapper. His glove would get so frozen after five minutes that he couldn’t even close it.”

For others, having battled Quebec winters provided the perfect primer to properly prepare for what awaited them.

“Yeah, it was extremely cold in Edmonton, but I remember times in Rouyn-Noranda when it would get down to about -50ºC,” revealed Ribeiro, who played for the Huskies in the QMJHL. “Even though it was cold out, we were still drinking water and Gatorade as usual. The coaches were drinking coffee – or maybe even something else other than water – to keep warm behind the bench.”

Known for his crushing bodychecks and his willingness to sacrifice his body for the team, Bouillon was forced to make a few tweaks to his game heading into the matchup.

“It wasn’t an overly physical game because both teams respected each other,” explained Bouillon. “The fact that we were playing outside made it a little more relaxed and friendly out there than usual. Even if the hits weren’t going to hurt more because of the cold, no one wanted to get injured with all the cracks in the ice.”

Less hitting meant there was a lot more open ice at Commonwealth Stadium than usual, helping the teams combine for just five penalties and seven goals. Led by Richard Zednik and Yanic Perreault with two goals apiece, the visitors came out with a 4-3 win over the Oilers in the historic clash. After opening the scoring for the Canadiens, Zednik etched himself into the record books as the first player to ever score an NHL goal outdoors. Making history with the win, the Habs – and Brisebois in particular – could hardly contain their excitement.

“As soon as the game ended, I was the first guy to sprint over to Theo to congratulate him. Just as I was about to give him a high five, I caught an edge in one of the cracks and bailed in front of everyone,” laughed Brisebois. “Not everyone saw it happen, but I’ll never forget it. Let’s just say that the fact that we won that game made everything a little funnier.”

While the prospect of playing one’s first outdoor game in the dead of winter might be intimidating to some, those who have lived it would do anything to do it again. One of the pioneers in the inaugural Heritage Classic is even willing to act as a consultant for nervous outdoor first-timers.

“A lot of guys have asked me about it because I was in the first one,” Ribeiro said proudly. “It was an experience I’ll remember for the rest of my life, and I still feel privileged to have been a part of it.”

Hugo Fontaine is a writer for

Highlights from the 2003 Heritage Classic
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