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Heritage Classic

Heritage Classic start of something special

New age of rivalry featuring Connor McDavid of Oilers, Patrik Laine of Jets begins Sunday

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

WINNIPEG -- Right now they're in their teens, 20s and 30s. They will play on a big stage outdoors when the Winnipeg Jets host the Edmonton Oilers in the 2016 Tim Hortons NHL Heritage Classic on Sunday (3 p.m. ET; NHLN, SN, TVA Sports 2, NHL.TV).

But before they know it they will be in their 40s, 50s and 60s, retired. What will they remember? What will they have to celebrate? What will be their bond?

The Jets have so much potential with players like Patrik Laine and Mark Scheifele. So do the Oilers with players like Connor McDavid and Jesse Puljujarvi. The hope is they fulfill it, so one day they will feel like the Jets and Oilers old-timers did for the 2016 Rogers NHL Heritage Classic Alumni Game on Saturday, when the crowd numbered 31,317 at Investors Group Field and intros received standing ovations.

It's not about matching the original Jets, who won the World Hockey Association's Avco Cup in 1976, '78 and '79, or those great Oilers, who won the Stanley Cup in 1984, '85, '87, '88 and '90. It's not about, say, Laine becoming the next Teemu Selanne or McDavid the next Wayne Gretzky. Those are tough acts to follow. This is a different era. These are different players.

But it is about making this Heritage Classic the start of something special, not just a special event, for the fans and the players themselves. It is about inspiring and sparking new legacies.

Video: SAP Stats: Oilers-Jets rivalry by the numbers

"That's the goal," Oilers forward Milan Lucic said. "I mean, I think you'd call me crazy if we expect to win five Cups. But to get to that point where we can have a championship team and a winning atmosphere and a winning culture is the goal, and to have them bring that around us, I think we can feed off that. We can learn something, and for me, I cherish those moments more than anything."

Both of these franchises and markets are aching for success, and each team used this opportunity to connect its alumni and current players.

The Oilers have missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs the past 10 seasons, finishing in the bottom three of the League standings six times in the last seven. They held a dinner Friday at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, next to The Forks in the heart of Winnipeg, and arranged the seating a certain way.

McDavid sat with Dave Lumley and Al Hamilton. "Definitely great to hear their stories," McDavid said. "I think you just get a sense of what it means to be an Oiler."

Puljujarvi sat with Jari Kurri and Esa Tikkanen. "Funny guys," Puljujarvi said.

Lucic sat with Glen Sather, Craig Simpson and Steve Staios. "The Oilers are the Oilers because of them," Lucic said. "To be around that is something that's really special, so I think we all had a lot fun."

"It was one of the best events I've been involved in at the National Hockey League level," Oilers coach Todd McLellan said. "To hear them talk about the history and the past I think is really important. But they didn't talk about winning Cups. They didn't talk about having parades. They talked about what it took to get there and being good teammates and taking care of each other, and they shared those stories. It was valuable. I'd like to think our players' ears were wide open."

The Jets have made the playoffs once in five years in Winnipeg, after making it once in 11 seasons as the Atlanta Thrashers. The franchise has never won a playoff game. The city of Winnipeg has not had an NHL team win a playoff game since 1996, when the original Jets moved to Phoenix and became the Coyotes. Winnipeg has never won the Stanley Cup.

Yes, the original Jets' history technically belongs to the Coyotes. But the new Jets have connected with the original Jets' history through this event, and Winnipeg fans always identified with it, anyway. The new Jets held a gala Friday at the RBC Convention Centre in Winnipeg, drawing 2,300 people.

Oilers alumni came over for a hot-stove discussion with Jets alumni moderated by Canadian TV icon Ron MacLean. On stage were Oilers greats like Gretzky, Mark Messier and Paul Coffey and Jets greats like Selanne, Dale Hawerchuk and Kris King. In the crowd were the current Jets.

Jets coach Paul Maurice said he wanted his players to see how the alumni sat with each other.

"You've got the Jets, and you've got the Oilers, and the Oilers clearly have a championship run," Maurice said. "They are the fastest of friends. They have a bond with each other that clearly endures today because they won together."

Maurice said he wanted his players to create a bond that would last into their later years.

Sounds like their ears were wide open.

"I think the biggest thing I take from listening to them tell stories is to enjoy the place you're in, enjoy being with your teammates, enjoy the time that you get with them and never take that for granted," Scheifele said. "When you stick together as a team, you're going to win. When you have a team that all wants to contribute and all wants to be part of something special, that's when you make something special in your team, and that's what we want to grow here."

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