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Heritage Classic returns to Canada

by Dave Lozo
CALGARY -- Eight years after it hosted the first outdoor game in NHL history, Canada will finally get a second crack at it.

The Montreal Canadiens and Calgary Flames will take part in the 2011 Heritage Classic on Feb. 20 at McMahon Stadium, home to the Canadian Football League's Calgary Stampeders. The League made it official during a warm Wednesday afternoon news conference, which took place on the field that will play host to the NHL's sixth-ever outdoor game.

"Our first regular-season outdoor game was played in Canada, and it's great to be coming back," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said. "As everyone knows, the roots of our game are in Canada. And the roots of our game emanate from frozen ponds and backyard rinks in Canada. When you have a heritage as proud and as strong as we do, you want to celebrate it."

There will have been four installments of the highly successful Winter Classic -- all taking place outdoors on U.S. soil -- since the 2003 Heritage Classic. The Pittsburgh Penguins and Buffalo Sabres played the inaugural game at Ralph Wilson Stadium in 2008; the Detroit Red Wings battled the Chicago Blackhawks at Wrigley Field in 2009, and the Boston Bruins hosted the Philadelphia Flyers at Fenway Park this year.

With the Penguins set to face the Washington Capitals at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh on New Year's Day 2011, the League felt the time was right to bring the outdoor NHL experience back to Canada.

"We wanted to be responsive. We knew how well the 2003 Heritage Classic game was received, how great a game it was," Bettman said. "And we were also, despite all the good reviews we were getting for the Winter Classic in the United States, we were hearing from fans in Canada, 'We'd like a game as well.' At the same token, there have been some who have said, 'How can you do more than one game?' but we think having these two games is the absolute right balance and is responding for what we're hearing our fans telling us they want."

McMahon Stadium, located on the campus of the University of Calgary, has a listed capacity of 35,650. But for the 2009 Grey Cup -- the CFL's equivalent to the NFL's Super Bowl -- there were 46,020 spectators on hand to watch on the Montreal Alouettes edge the Saskatchewan Roughriders 28-27. The rink is likely to dropped onto the stadium's FieldTurf with the end boards placed at each of the 20-yard lines, but that is subject to change.

According to Flames President Ken King, there will be additional seating for the Heritage Classic, but because of sightlines and logistics, there won't be as many people on hand as there were for the Grey Cup. King said expects roughly 40,000 to be in attendance, but there will be plenty of activities for those who aren't lucky enough to snag a ticket.

One of those ancillary events will be the first outdoor game in Western Hockey League history between the Calgary Hitmen and Regina Pats, tentatively scheduled for the Monday after the Heritage Classic.

"It will afford an opportunity for more people to see our sport played in the great outdoors," said King, who said there could be a couple of hundred thousand fans could come to Calgary during the Family Day weekend. "We envision a real heritage hockey festival. There will be events held throughout the city. We think it’s a wonderful tourist opportunity. We don’t look at this in any sense as an economic opportunity. This is a history endeavor. This is a heritage endeavor."

The Flames will pay tribute to their heritage by wearing a special jersey that was designed with the help of Reebok to give it a vintage look. The Canadiens will wear their traditional white road jerseys, but modifications to the player numbers will reflect the color combinations worn on their white jerseys throughout their history -- specifically how the numbers appeared during both the 1986 and 1989 Stanley Cup Finals against the Flames.

The 2003 Heritage Classic featured the Canadiens and Edmonton Oilers and was played in front of 57,167 fans at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton. The game was contested in sub-zero temperatures and is probably best remembered for the images of Canadiens goaltender Jose Theodore donning a toque over his mask than for Montreal's 4-3 victory. The temperature at the game -- which was played in late November, 171 miles north of McMahon Stadium -- was minus-4 degrees Fahrenheit. Fans in Calgary should expect warmer weather in late February, when the average temperature in the area is between 22 and 30 degrees.

McMahon Stadium might not carry the same cachet as historic Wrigley Field and Fenway Park does with fans in the United States, but the 50-year-old building has had its share of historic moments. It was constructed over a 100-day period in 1960 and later expanded to its current capacity in 1988 to serve as the site of the opening and closing ceremonies for the Winter Olympics. The Grey Cup has been held at McMahon Stadium in 1975, 1993, 2000 and 2009.

Curtis Glencross, Cory Sarich and Steve Staios, who took part in the 2003 Heritage Classic as a member of the Oilers, were on hand Wednesday for the Flames along with GM Darryl Sutter and coach Brent Sutter. Defenseman Josh Gorges, a native of Kelowna, B.C., represented the Canadiens.

Defenseman Andrei Markov is the only player left on the Canadiens roster who played in the 2003 game.

Tickets have yet to go on sale for the Heritage Classic, but fans can sign up for alerts at

Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo

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