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Equipment men prepared for the unexpected at Heritage Classic

by Shawn P. Roarke

The Canadiens toque perched atop Montreal goalie Jose Theodore's goalie helmet, was afixed using double-faced tape.
The signature image from the Heritage Classic -- Montreal goalie Jose Theodore standing in his crease with a Canadiens toque perched atop his goalie helmet -- was, believe it or not, pure improvisation.

The Heritage Classic, held back in 2003, was the first NHL regular-season game to be played outdoors. It pitted Theodore’s Canadiens against Edmonton on a temporary rink placed on the field of Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium. And while it was expected to be cold come game time, nobody expected the sub-zero temperatures that greeted the players as they took the ice.

So, necessity quickly became the mother of improvisation for Montreal equipment manager Pierre Gervais on the Canadiens’ bench.

“We had some (hats) for the players, but for before and after, obviously not during the game because they wouldn’t fit under their helmet,” Gervais said. “Jose came to the bench and said; ‘I feel the cold on the top of my head.’ So, we decided to put that toque on. We used double-faced tape so it would stick on there.”

Gervais, a 10-year vet of the NHL equipment wars, insists that there was no pre-planned agenda with the toque.

“Nobody ever thought about it,” Gervais said. “At the moment, we had to do everything possible to make him comfortable to play the game. So, we just stuck the toque on and it became so famous. They sold how many toques? That’s kind of funny. But nobody ever really thought about it at the time.”

Theodore’s toque, though, turned out to be just the most visible improvisation on a day filled with on-the-go fixes.

Thankfully, both Gervais and Barrie Stafford, the Edmonton equipment manager, had taken the Boy Scout Creed – “Be Prepared” – to heart long before the Heritage Classic entered their to-do list.

Each equipment manager spent weeks preparing for the game. They hit up their peers in football, especially from the CFL’s Montreal Alouettes and the NFL’s Green Bay Packers, for cold-weather outfitting tips. They compared notes. They laid on plenty of long underwear and other cold-weather garments. Hand and feet warmers were secured.

Skates were sharpened differently because the temporary ice surface was harder than a typical NHL rink. The normal water and sports drinks omnipresent at the bench during a game and in the dressing room were supplemented by offerings of hot tea and soup in an effort to keep the players warm.

The players were encouraged to change their undergarments after each period to stay as dry as possible.

Yet, there were still the unavoidable problems.

“We had to double-check everything,” Gervais said. “The problem that we had that we never really thought about was the (helmet) visors -- they got foggy very quickly. The players were warm and the weather was so cold, so we had a little problem with that. The players wore the visors a little bit higher. We had to adapt. We had no choice.”

Stafford ran into many of the same problems and his workload was doubled, in essence, because his staff was also responsible for taking care of the old-timers that took part in the MegaStars Game earlier in the day.

“It was a lot of work,” said Stafford, who thought he had seen it all in his 26 years of running the Edmonton dressing room. “Things that we never expected came up. But we were able to use the alumni guys for some feedback, monitoring them as they came of the ice to see what was working and what we needed to change.”

In the end, he said the unique challenges of the Heritage Classic made it one of the most nerve-wracking days of his career, harder than any of the Stanley Cup Final games over which he has presided.

“The Stanley Cup is much easier,” Stafford says. “At least you are in your element and following your routine. You know the buildings and you know where everything is. At that game, everything was different and you were really out of your comfort zone, so it made it challenging.”

Yet, both equipment managers overcame, which is what they are asked to do on a nightly basis throughout the season. The players were both warm and safe and free to put on a show that nobody will soon forget. That, more than anything, makes each man happy.

“I remember a little while after the game hearing Commissioner Gary Bettman say the Heritage Classic was one of the biggest moments in the history of hockey,” Stafford said. “At first, you’re thinking; ‘How can that be?’ Then, when you think about it, you understand that it could be. To be a part of that is really cool.”

For Gervais, he was happy just to hear his players and coaches acknowledge the important role his staff played in helping the Canadiens fashion a thrilling 4-3 victory.

“That was rewarding for all the work we did,” he said.

Yet, despite the long hours, the endless worry and the unexpected glitches, Gervais says he would happily sign up for another tour of duty with an outdoor game.

“Of course I would and it would be a little bit easier now,” Gervais said. “It’s worrisome, but I wouldn’t be as worried as I was because I would know what to do now.”

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