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First Heritage Classic remembered for more than cold

by Shawn P. Roarke / Edmonton Oilers
Everyone seems to remember how cold the first Heritage Classic was. Minus-22 Fahrenheit is something not easily forgotten, it appears.

For those that were there from outside the Albertan prairies, it was a cold like few others. Natives tried to explain it away as a "dry" cold -- much the same way that Arizonians try to brush off triple-digit temperatures by calling it a "dry" heat -- but it was semantics at best and folly at worst.

There was no explaining away the biting cold in Edmonton on Nov. 22, 2003, the date on which the Edmonton Oilers and Montreal Canadiens made history by playing the first outdoor game in NHL history at historic Commonwealth Stadium.

The Calgary Flames will follow in those bold footsteps more than eight years later, hosting the Canadiens on Feb. 20 at McMahon Stadium.

What weather awaits as day turns into evening on the Albertan prairies later this month? Who knows, but judging by the first Heritage Classic, which was played in historically cold temperatures, it won't really matter. Somehow, the brutal cold did nothing to take the shine of that first historic outdoor game. In retrospect, the weather almost became an afterthought.

Instead, for those lucky enough to be there -- and those that watched on TV -- the memories of the 2003 Heritage Classic are all warm and comforting; a testament to the game of hockey in general and, more specifically, the sport's place in Canadian culture.

Several hours before that first Heritage Classic game, clusters of fans were scattered around the spacious stadium, bundled under blankets and stomping their feet for warmth, waiting patiently in the aforementioned outdoor freezer for an event that would not start any time soon.

"It seemed everybody in Canada needed to be there that weekend," said Patrick LaForge, the Edmonton Oilers president, who created the original Heritage Classic. "It was magical."

Why? Because they were going to witness hockey history, and how could a little cold snap possibly interfere with something like that?

And, history it was.

The memories from that magical day marching into evening on the Canadian plains are almost too numerous to accurately count or retell.

Everyone remembers -- and rightfully so -- Montreal goalie Jose Theodore donning a toque to battle the biting cold that stung his ears right through his goalie mask.

It remains the event's signature moment.

"I remember that my mom always said, 'Put a toque on -- you're going to catch a cold.'" Theodore said after the game. "So I decided to make sure she's not going to say anything when I go back home, so I put a toque on."

But there were so many other memories -- big and small -- from that day that makes the Heritage Classic seem 8 days old instead of 8 years old.

Who can forget Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and Guy Lafleur on the ice for a pre-game appetizer of old-timer's shinny? For 60 minutes, Commonwealth Stadium was hockey's living, breathing Rink of Dreams, reminding us all of countless days spent on the ice emulating these greats. 

Shockingly, it is not any particular hockey move one of those legends pulled off in the game that stands the test of time. Rather, it is the smiles they all carried onto the ice, as well as the image of them -- no matter their star power, Stanley Cup rings or Hall of Fame plaques -- happily grabbing shovels to clear of the ice in much the same manner they did when they were first learning the game on ponds across Canada.

There also was the old-timer's camaraderie in the dressing room after the game, which Edmonton won 2-0 thanks in large part to a turn-back-the-clock performance from Edmonton goalie Grant Fuhr, who was spectacular throughout his half-game appearance.

Afterward, legends from era after era sat elbow to elbow in the cramped dressing rooms, peeling off hockey equipment and layer after layer of thermals, sharing laughs and stories from days gone by, happily picking up a conversation sadly abandoned the day they retired.

Who can forget that odd anticipatory silence, which turned into a roar in a split second when the officials marched onto the ice for warm-ups, signaling history was just around the corner?

Speaking of the officials, it's still hard to forget the face of referee Dan Marouelli smeared with Vaseline to fight the cold, his whistle wrapped in tape near the mouthpiece to prevent it from freezing to his lips. Or, for that matter, the sight of the linesmen jumping into plays to wildly signal offsides because their whistles had become muted by the harsh elements.

All these memories. Yet, we have not even spoken of the game yet.

Yes, there were memorable moments cataloged while Edmonton and Montreal battled each other and the elements for 60 minutes of hockey. After all, lest it be forgotten, this was not a mere exhibition; there were two points in the regular-season standings on the line. And the players treated it as such.

Richard Zednik scored a pair of goals, one to open the game and one to close Montreal's scoring as they took a 4-3 decision from the home side. Yanic Perreault also had 2 goals for the Canadiens. Eric Brewer, Jarret Stoll and Steve Staios scored for Edmonton, which never could fully erase Montreal's two-goal lead midway through the second period in a game that started slow, but finished feverishly.

"It was a great day with one exception," Oilers coach Craig MacTavish said at the time. "They got the better of the bounces."

In the end, however, the final score or the individual accomplishments mattered little Nov. 22, 2003. Instead, the Heritage Classic -- setting in motion the hugely successful Winter Classic that would follow five years later -- made hockey white hot on a night that was anything but that.

Author: Shawn P. Roarke | Senior Managing Editor

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