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Heritage Classic paved way for outdoor games

by Shawn P. Roarke /
Jacques Demers has so many hockey memories – including winning a Stanley Cup as coach of the Montreal Canadiens in 1993. So during 30 years in pro hockey, it's almost incomprehensible that he equates a brush with frostbite as one of his most memorable moments in the sport.

But, it's true.

Back in 2003, Demers was asked to coach a star-filled collection of Canadian alumni that would take part in an exhibition game against a team of Edmonton alumni as part of the festivities surrounding the Heritage Classic, the first regular-season outdoor game in NHL history.

Demers, now an analyst with RDS, jumped at a chance to coach some of the brightest stars in the Canadiens vast galaxy of former players. And, when he showed up to Commonwealth Stadium to take charge Nov. 22, he was greeted by a biting wind that carried temperatures dipping to an almost-inhumane 20-below Fahrenheit.

Yet, the smile never left Demers face – and not because it was frozen in place, either.

"That was very fortunate," Demers told recently, discussing his role in the Heritage Classic. "We had 57,000 people at 30 below zero and there was not one guy that was cold.

"To see Larry Robinson, Guy Lapointe, Guy Lafleur and to play against Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier; I'm a very fortunate guy."

Gretzky's appearance was the centerpiece of the MegaStars game, which was a prequel to the NHL game between the same two franchises that followed later that day.

Gretzky, the game's most-decorated player and now the coach of the Phoenix Coyotes, has had little use for alumni games since his retirement in 1999. Yet, he agreed to play in the MegaStars game because he wanted his children to see him play in the jersey of the Oilers, the team with which he started his NHL career and built his inexorable legend.

He received a warm ovation that day that temporarily dispelled a good deal of the undeniable chill in the air. And, even though Gretzky was nowhere close to his prime as the "Great One," his every move that magical night was lauded by both his peers on the ice and the fans in the stands.

"Listen, we are not as good as we used to be, not a chance," Gretzky told at the time. "But, we had a lot of fun out there. Both teams gave a lot of effort and the fans were tremendous. It was a great day for hockey."

There is no denying that bold statement.

Everyone involved in that late November night in the "City of Champions" intrinsically understood they were fortunate to play a part in NHL history as the Heritage Classic played to rave reviews. The game laid the foundation for the Winter Classic series, which began last year in Buffalo's Ralph Wilson Stadium and continues Jan. 1 with a game between Original Six rivals Detroit and Chicago at Wrigley Field  (1 p.m. NBC, CBC, RDS, NHL Radio).

In the actual NHL game that night in Edmonton, Montreal defeated Edmonton, 4-3 with Ralph Wilsonard Zednik scoring both the game-opening and game-winning goals for the visitors.

For some – like Detroit goalie Ty Conklin, who will be playing in his third outdoor game as a NHLer -- being involved in big NHL games out of doors is becoming commonplace; but five years ago, in Edmonton, everything about the process was new.

Dan Craig, NHL Facilities Operations Manager, had built rinks in so many far-flung places – including atop a swimming pool in Japan – but the Heritage Classic was a new challenge for him. Commonwealth Stadium, home to the Edmonton Eskimos of the Canadian Football League, simply was not designed to host hockey games.

But, Craig and his staff somehow made it work, applying some ingenuity and a healthy dose of hard work. Despite the back-breaking work and deadline-induced stress, Craig and his crew thoroughly enjoyed the thrill of what they thought would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

"Really, it was a good time putting it together," Craig told "I was fortunate to be able to work with my old crew from the (Edmonton) Coliseum and we had a real good week of putting everything together until we had a major snow storm and the cold front came in.

"But, the installation went really well for us. Until the snow storm, the timeline we had written out 10 months before; to the day, we got everything done. Then Mother Nature took care of things."

The snowstorm preceded the cold front that brought in the bone-chilling temperatures that remain one of the lasting legacies of the Heritage Classic.

"It's unbelievable how much has to go into it; but the end result of standing in the stadium and you have 40, 50, 60,000 people enjoying themselves, you think this is what it's all about right here." -- Dan Craig, NHL Facilities Operations Manager

The snow provided a beautiful backdrop for the game, which remains indelibly etched in the memories of everyone that was involved. Meanwhile, the cold created the indelible image of that night: Montreal's Jose Theodore tending goal with a team-logoed toque perched atop his goalie helmet in a bid to fight off the bitter cold.

The toque was a spontaneous fix to a pressing problem, says Pierre Gervais, the Montreal equipment manager on the bench that day.

"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 told last year. "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."

And, a legend was born as Heritage Classic toques were one of the biggest sellers in the aftermath of the game and Winter Classic 2008 toques flew off the shelves in the run-up to the game at Ralph Wilson Stadium.

When it all had ended -- when the 57,167 fans reluctantly shuffled out of the frozen stadium in a necessary search for sources of heat, when the cheers finally stopped echoing off the bowl of Commonwealth Stadium and when the players, both past and present, had snapped their final pictures to document the once-unfathomable experience – Craig was once again alone with his creation.

And, in that moment, he fully understood just what he had helped unleash.

"It's unbelievable how much has to go into it; but the end result of standing in the stadium and you have 40, 50, 60,000 people enjoying themselves, you think this is what it's all about right here," Craig told this week. "I'm glad we're doing it and taking the next step. You don't get too far ahead of yourself, but I'm excited to get going for the next one here."
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