NHL Kulak for HC over column

EDMONTON -- It’s one thing to play an NHL outdoor game. It’s another to play one in your hometown, to score a goal, to earn a win.

Defenseman Brett Kulak and goalie Stuart Skinner lived the dream in the 2023 Tim Hortons NHL Heritage Classic. Each was born in Edmonton. Kulak opened the scoring and Skinner made 24 saves for the Edmonton Oilers in a 5-2 victory against the Calgary Flames in front of a crowd of 55,411 at Commonwealth Stadium on Sunday.

“It’s just special,” Kulak said. “When we found out we were going to do this game, everyone circled it on the calendar, and you looked forward to it. There was a lot of buildup for it. This is something we’ll remember for the rest of our lives, and it’s a top highlight of everyone’s career individually.”

This game celebrated the 20th anniversary of the first NHL outdoor regular-season game, the 2003 Heritage Classic, a 4-3 win for the Montreal Canadiens against the Oilers in this same stadium. It was also the first time the Battle of Alberta was waged outdoors.

Kulak was 9 years old for the first Heritage Classic, rooting for the Oilers in Stony Plain, Alberta, west of Edmonton. The official temperature at face-off was 0 degrees Fahrenheit that day.

“I don’t think my parents were letting me outside,” Kulak said with a laugh. “It was a cold day, so I was hanging out at home. I remember having it on the TV, watching the guys. I was pretty starstruck. You love that stuff, and I thought it was pretty cool.”

Kulak later experienced both sides of the Battle of Alberta. The Flames selected him in the fourth round (No. 105) in the 2012 NHL Draft, and he played his first four seasons in Calgary. After four seasons in Montreal, he is in his third season in Edmonton.

And so, he appreciated all the little things Sunday.

The Oilers arrived dressed like oil riggers in white helmets, blue jumpsuits and blue sunglasses. The Flames arrived in white cowboy hats and blue overalls -- with no shirts underneath. Cold? What cold?

Connor McDavid 360-Cam Ride Along at Heritage Classic

The teams marched out side by side in throwback uniforms as fire shot up from the ground and the top of a model oil derrick. They lined up on the field and listened to “O Canada” sung by country artist Brett Kissel, who was born in Saint Paul, Alberta.

For a second, they waited. Then two CT-155 Hawk jets from the Royal Canadian Air Force’s 4 Wing Cold Lake fighter base soared overhead. The heads of the players from each team followed their flight path from right to left in unison.

“The flyover was definitely something that stuck out to me,” Kulak said. “That was pretty special.”

Six players who participated in the 2003 Heritage Classic dropped the ceremonial first puck -- Alex Hemsky, Charlie Huddy and Jarret Stoll from Edmonton; Steve Begin, Stephane Quintal and Jose Theodore from Montreal. The skies were clear, and the official temp at face-off was 36.7 degrees Fahrenheit -- cold, but not uncomfortable.

Kulak gave the Oilers a 1-0 lead 4:19 into the first period, backhanding a rebound into the net, lifting the fans out of their seats and drawing one of those deep outdoor roars.

“There’s a lot of ties to the game,” Kulak said. “Just being outdoors in the city I was born in. I’ve got lots of family here watching the game. The atmosphere in the rink was amazing, so to be able to score one and get us going, lots of emotions for sure. It felt good.”

Nickelback, the rock band formed in Hanna, Alberta, performed during the second intermission. Lead vocalist Chad Kroeger told the crowd, “We grew up in Alberta, so we know firsthand how important the rivalry is between these two cities.” They were finishing their song “Rockstar” when the players came out for the third period, feeling like rock stars. The Oilers led 3-2.

“The atmosphere all night, but especially in that moment, coming out for a big third period, it couldn’t have been better,” Kulak said.

NHL Skinner for HC over column

Skinner was 5 years old for the first Heritage Classic. He doesn’t remember it. But he has many memories of the Edmonton Elks, once known as the Eskimos, playing in this stadium in the Canadian Football League.

“I love coming over to Commonwealth and watching their games,” Skinner said. “It’s so much fun. It’s a great atmosphere. And good hot dogs.”

Skinner wore goalie gear in tribute to Oilers great Grant Fuhr and didn’t wear a toque to make sure everyone could see the mask. He made 10 saves in the third period as Edmonton closed out Calgary.

“It’s pretty remarkable, the timing of it, to be honest with you, that I was able to be here and play the game,” he said. “It’s very near and dear to me, to my heart, and after the win, I was able to kind of look up and look at the fans and really enjoy it for a minute or two. It was very special. Very, very grateful.”