NHL Zach Hyman at Heritage practice with TV bug

EDMONTON -- Ryan McLeod walked out of the Edmonton Oilers dressing room for practice Saturday, and it hit him -- the cold, the scene. This was really happening. He was going to play in an NHL outdoor game for the first time.

“I’m super excited,” the forward said. “Growing up, I always wanted to do it.”

When the Oilers host the Calgary Flames in the 2023 Tim Hortons NHL Heritage Classic at Commonwealth Stadium on Sunday (7 p.m. ET; SN, TVAS, TBS, MAX), it will celebrate the 20th anniversary of the original Heritage Classic.

The Montreal Canadiens defeated the Oilers 4-3 in front of a crowd of 57,167 in this same stadium Nov. 22, 2003. The idea was to harken back to hockey’s heritage outdoors, but back then, no one grew up wanting to play in the NHL outdoors.

No one had done it, really, except for a preseason game between the Los Angeles Kings and New York Rangers in the parking lot of Caesars Palace in Las Vegas on Sept. 27, 1991. The original Heritage Classic was the first time the NHL had played a regular-season game outdoors in the modern era.

Now a generation has grown up watching NHL outdoor games. In their own right, they’re part of the NHL dream.

“Absolutely,” said Oilers forward Connor Brown, who will play in his third NHL outdoor game. “Yeah.”

This is the legacy of the original Heritage Classic.

It led to the original Winter Classic, a 2-1 shootout win for the Pittsburgh Penguins against the Buffalo Sabres in front of 71,217 at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, New York, on Jan. 1, 2008.

That led to much, much more. The NHL has played 37 outdoor games in a variety of venues, involving 934 players and drawing 1,851,642 fans. That’s an average of 52,904 fans per game (not including the two games played with no fans for television in the 2021 NHL Outdoors at Lake Tahoe during the COVID-19 pandemic).

Penguins center Sidney Crosby remembers watching the original Heritage Classic on television as a 16-year-old -- the official temperature of 0 degrees Fahrenheit at face-off, Canadiens goalie Jose Theodore wearing a toque atop his mask -- and getting to play in the original Winter Classic himself. He scored the shootout winner in the snow.

“It looked like those guys had fun,” Crosby said, “and that was exciting for us, getting the opportunity to play outside for the first time for a lot of us at that level.”

NHL Flames at Heritage practice

Flames defenseman MacKenzie Weegar was 9 when his cousin Craig Rivet played for the Canadiens in the original Heritage Classic.

“He had fun,” Weegar said. “He said it was a privilege to play in it. Pretty cool moment for him. I’m sure when he looks back on something like that, when you’re done in your career, it’s pretty special playing in one of these.”

When he made the NHL, Weegar didn’t think much about playing outdoors. He spent his first six seasons with the Florida Panthers, the League’s southernmost team and one of four teams that hasn’t played an outdoor game yet.

Now he’s in Calgary, and he has the chance for the first time.

“It’s pretty special, and I’m honored to be playing in one of these,” Weegar said. “It’s awesome.”

Oilers forward Zach Hyman said he’s sure he watched the original Heritage Classic on TV as an 11-year-old.

When the Toronto Maple Leafs defeated the Detroit Red Wings 3-2 in a shootout in the 2014 Winter Classic at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Hyman was a player at the University of Michigan who had been selected by the Panthers in the fifth round (No. 123) of the 2010 NHL Draft.

Hyman sat on a metal bench in the stands amid the NHL record crowd of 105,491 -- at least until he left about midway through the game because he was so cold. He finished watching the game on TV at home.

Did he imagine himself playing an NHL outdoor game someday?

“Oh, yeah,” he said. “The atmosphere was great.”

Three years later, he played for the Maple Leafs in a 5-4 overtime win against the Red Wings in the Centennial Classic in front of 40,148 at Exhibition Stadium in Toronto.

Then he played for the Maple Leafs in a 5-2 loss to the Washington Capitals in the Stadium Series before 29,516 at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Maryland, on March 3, 2018.

Now he will play in another NHL outdoor game. It never gets old.

“It’s special when you’re in the League to have a game like this,” Hyman said. “Any time you have an event where it’s a memory and your family can come out and everybody kind of experiences it, it makes it special, and it makes it a must-watch game from a fan perspective.

“I think as a young kid watching, you probably dream about an outdoor game.”

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