Here at NHL.com we should have known better than ask Georges Laraque
what it was like to play in the famous outdoor game, the Heritage Classic, in Edmonton on Nov. 22, 2003, when the temperature was -20F (or -29C).
"It was fun," Laraque said, and we should have known that would have been his impression. Laraque is the kind of guy who has fun in any setting. Fun is his co-pilot.
But we had to ask because Laraque has a unique perspective in that he is the only Heritage Classic veteran who is also a full-time member of the Pittsburgh Penguins or Buffalo Sabres, the teams that will contest the outdoor AMP Energy NHL Winter Classic in Buffalo on New Year's Day.
Ty Conklin, the starting goalie for Edmonton in the Heritage Classic, is now the backup for Pittsburgh after the injury to Pittsburgh starter Marc-Andre Fleury. Conklin could still be with the Penguins come New Year’s Day.
The 1 p.m. game will be televised on NBC in the United States and CBC in Canada.
"I remember how cold it was!" Laraque said. "We all had to wear tuques under our helmets, it was that cold. We couldn't breathe right, either. There wasn't much hitting or blocking shots. The puck was really cold. We knew how cold it was going to be because the old-timers played first and we could see it affecting them. They sold 60,000 tickets or so, but some of the fans had to leave because of those temperatures.
"It was a game where you would rather be sitting on the bench than playing because we had heaters at our bench," Laraque continued. "It was the only game I've ever been in when guys didn't mind being bench warmers! And, no one was complaining about a lack of ice time. On that day, it was not a bad thing to be sitting."
Laraque said he isn't sure they had the temperature right. It was a lot colder, he said.
"It felt like minus-50F with the wind chill," Laraque said. "I don't think it can get as cold in Buffalo. One of the problems with having an outdoor game is that we can't control the temperature. It could be as warm in Buffalo as it was cold in Edmonton, or it could be a very cold day. Or, it could snow heavily. Let's hope it's just a good day for a hockey game.
"There was some thought of postponing the Heritage Classic because of the cold; but it's so hard to postpone something when you have all those tickets sold, a visiting NHL team with a travel schedule and all those old-timers in town."
Laraque said the players in Edmonton were well prepared. He wore three layers of long-sleeved polypro underwear. He usually wears only one layer.
"Even though it was really cold, no one who played suffered any frostbite," Laraque said. "We had everything we needed to keep warm at our benches."
About halfway through the conversation, Laraque had a realization and pulled up sharply.
"You know, I'm really looking forward to this game in Buffalo and my teammates are too," he said. "I don't want to be scaring anyone. Everyone will tell you Buffalo's weather isn't like Edmonton."
Laraque's Oilers lost that game, 4-3, to the Montreal Canadiens. The team had played the first month and a half as a set-in-its-ways .500 team, but had won four-straight games going into the Heritage Classic and boasted a 10-7-2 mark.
"Then we had what came to be known as the ‘Heritage Curse’ or ‘the Classic Curse,’" Laraque explained. "We lost nine of the next 10 games and were 3-9-4 over the next 16 games and we wound up missing the playoffs by two points. There was no reason for it, just coincidence, but we called it the ‘Classic Curse’ or the ‘Classic Hangover.’"
The Canadiens followed The Heritage Classic with a 5-3-2 record, so there was no clear negative effect resulting from playing outdoors in low temperatures.
Laraque thought the Heritage Classic was a unique event and a welcome one from playing his entire professional career indoors.
"I would do it again and I guess I will," he laughed. "Everybody was excited to play in that game, just as we are now. It was unique and exciting. Even the practice was fun. The whole experience was awesome."
Laraque, 31, played eight seasons with the Oilers from 1997-06. He signed as a free agent with the Phoenix Coyotes in 2006 and was traded to Pittsburgh on Feb. 27, 2007 for Danny Carcillo and a third-round selection in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft.
Laraque has 49 goals and 91 assists for 140 points and 940 penalty minutes in 585 NHL games.