Legendary hockey reporter Stan Fischler writes a weekly scrapbook for NHL.com. Fischler, known as "The Hockey Maven," shares his humor and insight with readers each Wednesday.

This week, Stan reaches back 20 years when the NHL took a big gamble by staging a regular-season game outdoors at night in Edmonton's bitter cold Commonwealth Stadium and called it a "Heritage Classic." Amazingly, it would turn out to be a big hit and the first of six more up to this year.

It just didn't make sense; or did it?

Having a regularly scheduled NHL game between the Montreal Canadiens and Edmonton Oilers played in Edmonton at night, outdoors and in below-zero temperatures did not seem the formula for box office success; especially 20 years ago when it first was proposed.

Yet against the advice of skeptics, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman gave a green light to the match at spacious Commonwealth Stadium on November 22, 2003. 

Even now, two decades later, it seems like an unlikely production, and with that in mind, I put the question to Bettman the other day, "Why was the Heritage Classic worth a gamble?"

The Commissioner wasted no time noting that hockey's rich outdoor background was part of the equation.

"Hockey started in Canada," Bettman enthusiastically explained. "Playing outdoors was commonplace. We could see the Heritage Classic as a common, unifying, bonding experience. We figured the colder the conditions, the stronger the bond."

He was right. A record crowd of 57,167 showed up at Commonwealth Stadium for the world premiere and had the time of their lives. But to ensure that it was done right, NHL planners also offered some extra added attractions.

For starters, Wayne Gretzky agreed to play in the only Alumni Game of his life that afternoon (up to that point) and Mark Messier -- still a regular with the Rangers -- got permission to skate for the Edmonton alumni side. The visiting Canadiens veterans were led by Hall of Famer Guy Lafleur.

Retro Recap: The First Heritage Classic

The main nighttime event would feature each team in classic jerseys from yesteryear. Local fans were promised the blue and orange outfit worn when the former Oilers' World Hockey Association team entered the NHL in 1979. The Canadiens would don colors from their 1946 Stanley Cup winners. Still, nobody was sure it would sell.

Then it happened; the box office opened and an overwhelming ticket demand followed; a deluge never before known in the city's history. The Oilers received 750,000 entries when a lottery was held to determine who would buy seats.

The 57,167 who made Commonwealth Stadium bulge loved every frigid second of it -- except for the final result -- 4-3 for Montreal.

Jack Frost was toughest on the goaltenders, especially Montreal's Jose Theodore, who donned a wool toque over his mask and sipped tea and hot chocolate to keep his engines going.

"My hands were really cold," Theodore admitted, "and my leg muscles tightened up." Then, a pause, "But we won."

A first minute goal starting the second period by Richard Zednik and another by Yanic Perreault at 10: 53 staked the visitors to a 2-0 lead before Oilers defenseman Eric Brewer beat Theodore at 13:45 of the second period.

Perreault got his second red light early in the third. Jarret Stoll made it a 3-2 game at 13:06 but Zednik got his second -- and the winner -- at 14:18. Steve Staios -- currently president of hockey operations and interim GM of the Ottawa Senators -- was too late with the final Edmonton goal at 14:57 of the third.

The Canadiens won the nail-biter 4-3 and that set the special event planners wondering what to do about an encore. For a one-shot, it was a huge success; the question was whether it should be a worthwhile regular event or not.

Despite the warm reception to the frigid event, the League decided to play it cool for a while; actually, seven years cool before selecting McMahon Stadium in Calgary for the second Heritage Classic game on February 20, 2011. This time the home team Calgary Flames won 4-0 against the Canadiens and another capacity crowd of 41,022 got the planners trying to figure out why it again drew a huge crowd.

"Three reasons," explained NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly. "First, the Heritage Classic has a 'big event' look and feel. Second, its special, unique feel makes it more of an attraction. Finally, they rekindle romantic childhood memories for many who grew up to skate and play hockey out of doors."

Born on a farm in the Alberta prairie, veteran columnist-author Dick Beddoes understood the attraction better than most.

"A boy-lonely dream shapes our Canadian cold where, as poet Al Purdy put it, 'hockey is the Canadian specific.' It is our clearest and yet most improbable hope. But almost all of us at one time or another been tenants of this vision -- a wintertime reverie where we could hide from reality."

One second game report again was encouraging. It stated: "The game achieved high TV ratings in both Canada and the U.S. Due to record sponsorship, it grossed the highest revenue for a single event in NHL history."

This, in turn, inspired the League to hold still more. They were in 2014 (Vancouver), 2016 (Winnipeg), 2019 (Regina), 2022 (Hamilton), and most recently 2023 (Edmonton), where the Oilers defeated the Flames, 5-2, before more than 55,000 cheering fans at Commonwealth Stadium.

"The League has done an amazing job of maneuvering the venues and the teams," said former Pittsburgh Penguins owner Howard Baldwin. "It's an experience everyone wants to be part of at least once and maybe even more."

"Hockey 365" author Mike Commito, who lives in cold Sudbury, Ontario, offers this conclusion: "The scene of players skating around outside, their breath visible in the frigid air, was beautifully reminiscent of childhood memories of backyard rinks and frozen ponds."

But for Manhattan me, it was stickhandling across frozen Central Park Lake -- an unforgettable experience.