"It was about 102 degrees and I remember thinking, 'Wow, it's going to be hot out there tonight," Gretzky told NHL.com last week during his annual Fantasy Camp in Las Vegas. "They put this big tarp over top of the ice because between 2 and 5 (p.m.) the intensity of the sun is so strong that they were nervous the ice would melt. Not thinking too much about it at 5:30 they pulled down the tarp. Well, it was about 210 degrees and it landed on the ice and almost melted the entire rink. Amazingly they rallied ... and truly the ice was really good. I did think when that was done that this could happen again."
It did in 2003, and again Gretzky was a part of it, joining many of his old Oilers teammates for the first Heritage Classic Alumni Game. After four successful NHL Winter Classic games, the League is bringing the Heritage Classic back this weekend in Calgary. Former members of the Flames and Montreal Canadiens will play in the second Heritage Classic Alumni Game on Saturday in advance of the 2011 Tim Hortons NHL Heritage Classic on Sunday (6 p.m., ET VERSUS, CBC, RDS) between the current Flames and Canadiens.
Gretzky said he'll be tuned in.
"What it does is it puts a positive spin on our sport worldwide, and secondly it rallies a community," Gretzky said of bringing back the Heritage Classic. "The people in Edmonton truly loved it when we played the outdoor game and I'm sure that's going to be the same sense when they play it in Calgary. The fans will get to go to a football stadium to watch the Calgary Flames play against one of the storied franchises in all of sports, and I think it's nothing but positive, nothing but exciting. I think the players who play in these games will tell you it's fun to be on the ice and it brings back a lot of memories as a child."
For Gretzky and many of his former teammates, including Hall of Famers Mark Messier, Grant Fuhr and Paul Coffey, the 2003 Heritage Classic Alumni Game was a return to the dynasty years.
"The fans will get to go to a football stadium to watch the Calgary Flames play against one of the storied franchises in all of sports, and I think it's nothing but positive, nothing but exciting. I think the players who play in these games will tell you it's fun to be on the ice and it brings back a lot of memories as a child." --Wayne Gretzky
It started with a practice the day before doubleheader between the Oilers and Canadiens, old and young, at Commonwealth Stadium on Nov. 22, 2003. Gretzky said it was remarkably cold -- "I think 40 below." -- and the players were "apprehensive and wondering if this was going to be able to be pulled off."
Once on the ice for practice, it was like they went back in time about 20 years.
"Glen (Sather) was there and John Muckler, and they started putting together some drills," Gretzky said. "After about 30 minutes we came in and they said, 'OK, that's enough.' We were like, 'No, let's keep going.' We went for a good hour and had a lot of fun."
Fuhr told NHL.com it was the first time he had put on his goalie equipment since he retired in 2000.
"It was like nothing had changed, we were just a little slower than we used to be," he said. "The drills picked up right where we left off. Everybody knew where they were supposed to be. You sit there, hem and haw, but as soon as you put the gear on you're a kid again. You hope that you're semi-good, but it doesn't always work out that way. Still, it's so much fun."
As it should be in Calgary this weekend, just like it was a blast in Pittsburgh on New Year's Day, and in Boston, Chicago and Buffalo the three previous years. The NHL has created something transcendent, something ever-lasting in these outdoor games, but it all started with an exhibition game under the stars in the desert nearly 20 years ago.
The Great One was there, and his thought on the future proved to be true.