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Habs' staff knows how to prepare for Heritage Classic

by Arpon Basu /
MONTREAL -- Pierre Gervais and Graham Rynbend have been down this road before, and the first time that road was about as difficult as they come.

Gervais, the Montreal Canadiens' equipment manager, and Rynbend, the team's head athletic therapist, faced one of the biggest challenges of their respective careers when the original Heritage Classic was held at Edmonton's Commonwealth Stadium in November 2003.

"We learned the hard way," Gervais said with a laugh. "It was very cold."

With temperatures hovering around the minus-20 Fahrenheit mark -- plus a wind chill -- Gervais and Rynbend were faced with obstacles so unique and difficult that the 2011 Tim Hortons Heritage Classic at Calgary's McMahon Stadium on Feb. 20 (6 p.m. ET, VERSUS, CBC, RDS) is not a major source of concern.

It will, however, force Rynbend to break a promise he made to himself in 2003.

"When that game was over," he said, "I told myself I would never do one of these games again."

Gervais and Rynbend have been preparing for this game since the first meetings with the NHL were held back in June, and their respective roles in how this game goes for the Canadiens should not be underestimated.

Take, for instance, Rynbend's major influence on the Canadiens winning 4-3 in the original Heritage Classic.

Upon arrival in Edmonton for the game, Rynbend and his staff saw what kind of conditions they would be facing and frantically drove all over town buying kettles and thermoses.

The concern for them was keeping the players hydrated, because the normal offering of cold water or Gatorade was unlikely to be very popular on the bench. So one of Rynbend's assistants at the time, Jodi Van Rees, came up with the idea of offering the players warm beverages.

"The last thing you want to do in that kind of weather is throw a cold beverage down your throat," Rynbend said.

The menu was plain warm water, chicken broth, tea and room-temperature Gatorade.

After some early reluctance, the players quickly took to the tea and chicken broth.

Except when the temperature of the drinks was the most attractive feature -- too hot and the players would burn their mouths, too cold and they're no longer serving their intended purpose -- so it made for a lot of extra work for the training staff.

They set up a warming station near the Canadiens' dressing room, and Rynbend estimates that one of his assistants made about 50 runs back and forth with perfectly warmed liquids.

But it was worth it.

"To this day I'm convinced I did my part to help us win that game," Rynbend said. "We told the Oilers about it, but they didn't want to listen to us."

It's possible it will be that cold again in Calgary this Sunday, just like it's possible it will be totally warm. Right now, the forecast calls for temperatures between 10 and 20 degrees Fahrenheit with a 40-percent chance of snow, but that forecast could chance dramatically during the course of the week.

It is that unknown element that makes the job more complicated for Gervais and his staff, because they need to have the appropriate gear available for the players to meet any conditions.

Still, his experience from 2003 will be valuable this week.

"I have no fear at all, honestly," Gervais said. "I had fear in Edmonton, trust me. I lost a couple of nights of sleep before that one. But now I know what to expect. It can't be any colder than that. It can only be better."

In 2003, Gervais relied on the expert advice of two good friends -- Red Batty, equipment manager for the NFL's Green Bay Packers, and Ronnie James, equipment manager of the Canadian Football League's Montreal Alouettes.

The advice they gave Gervais then remains true today -- make sure to pack enough underwear.

The Canadiens will be bringing about 300 pieces of long underwear to Calgary, in all different shapes, sizes and degrees of warmth.

"We'd rather have way too much than be short," Gervais said. "It's stuff we normally don't need to deal with, and we'll ship it back to Montreal when we're done."

Another big part of the equipment staff's job is jerseys, and the fact the Heritage Classic is being held in the middle of a three-game road trip complicates matters a bit.

The Canadiens will wear four sets of special jerseys for Sunday's game -- one for pre-game warm-ups, plus a fresh one for each period -- and there also will be special practice jerseys for the day before, when the team takes its first spin around the McMahon Stadium ice surface.

Prior to the Heritage Classic, Montreal will play a game in Edmonton in their regular road jerseys, but following that one the Canadiens will play in Vancouver in their red home jerseys.

When you tack on the team's regular practice jerseys, that makes eight sets of jerseys the equipment staff needs to take care of, or four times as many as a normal road trip.

In all, Gervais estimates the Canadiens will be travelling with about 500 pounds of extra equipment solely because of the Heritage Classic.

"I'll be glad when it's over," Gervais said, smiling. "I'll be glad to be there, I'll be glad to see the team on the ice, but I'll be glad when it's over."

Even though the event requires a ton of extra work, Gervais said he's more than happy to do it because, behind the novelty of playing outdoors and the hype that will surround the game, the ultimate goal remains the same.

"It's a fun thing, that's the way you have to see it," he said. "It's a fun thing that you have to win."

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