by Marc Ciampa
(left to right) Shaun Ayotte, Don Cherry impersonator Clark Robertson, St. Albert Mayor Paul Chalifoux and Kevin Lowe
On Monday afternoon, the Edmonton Oilers not only reached out to the community of St. Albert, their alumni staged a full-fledged game of shinny out there.
Oilers alumni Kelly Buchberger, Kevin Lowe and Chris Joseph along with former NHLer Rob Brown and Oilers video coach Brian Ross took on Backyard Classic winner Shaun Ayotte and his team of 15 skaters at a community rink near William D. Cutts school in St. Albert.Click here to view Andy Devlin's photo gallery of the day's events
"Were having a lot of fun out here. Its been great for the community of St. Albert," said Buchberger.
The Backyard Classic is in its second year and is an event conjured up by the Oilers and 630 CHED to bring the game to the community.
"When we came out of the lockout we wanted to stage something that would be a real grassroots feel to it, look to it and be something that anybody could go to and perhaps see an alumni player and a real NHL player," said Oilers VP of Communications Allan Watt.
"We had no idea how the game was going to come back or what the response to the game would be coming back. When we staged the first Backyard Classic, it was really successful."
Last seasons inaugural Backyard Classic was held in early January on an acreage in Ardrossan.
"The commissioner happened to be in town and he came out and loved it," said Watt. "It was the talk of the NHL. They had a governors meeting and they said, Now that is what you guys in Canada can do that everybody would love to be able to do"
The Oilers have been known to be innovators at the NHL level and have staged a number of events – big and small – that has made the league take notice – the Heritage Classic three years ago, for instance.
"Ironically enough when you think about the Heritage Classic, all that is a big inflated Backyard Classic," noted Watt.
Last season there were certainly some challenges as unseasonably warm weather shrunk the playable ice surface to a 20 by 30 foot patch. This year was also not without its obstacles.
"We wanted to go right to a pond, take the winners there and have a real outside feel," said Watt.
However, those initial plans were scuttled late last week when some people wandered onto the rink and thought they would try their hands at ice fishing. The holes drilled into the ice made the surface unplayable.
In the end, the revised setting proved to be outstanding. The event was moved to a nearby community rink right beside W.D. Cutts School. With the event beginning just as school was ending, there was a large number of onlookers.
"This has a real community feel to it," said Watt. "Its right next to a school, were able to make it a little better with having the Fanboni here, having sleigh rides."
Events like the Backyard Classic enable all fans – youth and adults alike – to rediscover their love for Canadas game.
"Its where the game starts – kids coming home from school, racing through their homework, grabbing something to eat then begging to go to the rink before it gets dark.
"The way to learn the game of hockey is not going through pylons, its about playing the game and having fun. Those were all the bases we wanted to touch through this."
Ayotte was absolutely thrilled to be named the winner of the contest.
"Its a dream come true for all of us. We grew up watching Kevin Lowe and all those great teams in the 80s winning all those Cups," he said.
Listeners to 630 CHED submitted thousands of entries in the hopes of being named winner and in the end the St. Albert resident was the lucky recipient. However, after being named the victor he then had to go about choosing his team.
"It was tough, actually," he said. "When you win a contest like this you have to limit it to 14 or 15 people. Its just some family members and some friends. Im glad they were able to come out today."
Ayotte wanted to also express his gratitude to the organizers of the event.
"I just wanted to thank the Edmonton Oilers and 630 CHED for everything they did to put together this event. Its just been fantastic."
Oilers GM Kevin Lowe also wanted to express thanks to Ayotte and the fans who took the time to attend the event.
"I want to thank everyone for coming out and lets celebrate the great game of hockey."