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IN DEPTH: The Great Outdoors

by Chris Wescott / Edmonton Oilers
Steam rises from your toque, or maybe from out of the opening in your gloves. As your breath comes in, the sting of the cold air on the lungs might as well be fire because as you breathe out it looks like smoke. That stinging in your lungs doesn’t really hurt if you’re out enjoying a crisp winter day in Canada on the outdoor rink.

Commonwealth Stadium hosts the 2003 Winter Classic. Photo by Getty Images.

Red-faced and runny-nosed, so many in the Great White North understand the feeling stepping outside and onto the ice brings.

Whether you’re trudging through snow to reach a community pond, lake or rink, or if you’ve built one in the backyard or the community centre down the road has freshly resurfaced ice, few winter activities bring out Canadian nostalgia better than the ‘ODR’.

Hockey in its truest form, arguably, belongs out in the fresh air.

Maybe that’s what makes games like the Heritage Classic back in 2003 so special. The Oilers did what had not been done before in the National Hockey League, scheduling a game to be played out in the open. Edmonton hosted Montreal at Commonwealth Stadium for the inaugural Heritage Classic.

“It hadn’t been done before and the NHL wasn’t going to stop us because really they couldn’t stop us,” said Oilers Entertainment Group Vice Chair Kevin Lowe, who suited up for the legends game on that frigid winter day in Oil Country. “In terms of providing home games, it doesn’t say anywhere whether the games have to be indoors. So we approached it that way and the NHL said to run with it. To this day, we’re extremely pleased to have been responsible for what is now a great spectacle for the National Hockey League.”

That first outdoor display began something special in the NHL. Today, there are many outdoor games each year that bring back memories of childhood winters spent outside.

“I don’t know if kids play outdoors as much as our generation but there certainly is (nostalgia),” said Lowe. “I reflect back to the Heritage Classic in 2003 where there was so much snow on the ice and all the guys got the shovels out and started shovelling. That is part of the whole outdoors experience and it was a fun to be a part of it. No question that when you do step outdoors and breathe the air and experience the game outdoors it’s extra special.”

Wayne Gretzky joins members of the Oilers and Montreal Canadiens alumni teams for a photograph at the 2003 Winter Classic. Photo by Getty Images.

The Oilers that day brought forth a revelation in the hockey world, leading to countless outdoor games to follow.

“These games present a unique opportunity for friends and families to join together and celebrate a game, and more importantly the game’s roots,” said NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly. “It always gives our league great pride to announce special events in the country where our game originated. Canada’s heritage and the sport of hockey are forever intertwined.”

On Nov. 22, 2003, the Oilers presented the NHL with something special and the League knew that at the time.

“(NHL Commissioner) Gary Bettman said at the next Board of Governors meeting that it was perhaps, in his tenure, the single most important day for the NHL,” said Lowe.

Playing a regular season game outdoors wasn’t so easy, nor was it a guarantee the game would take place without a hitch.

“The biggest factor is weather. And because you can’t predict it, you have to be able to find ways to work with it,” said Dan Craig, the NHL’s chief ice maker, who spearheaded the Commonwealth Stadium rink creation in 2003. “It goes back to, and I can’t tell people enough, be patient because there’s a lot of times people don’t understand it’s a nice bright, sunny day and I can’t play hockey here because that logo is going to trip up every single guy. That blueline is going to trip up every single guy.”

The weather back in 2003 was bitter cold, but there was never a thought to cancel. “Not a chance,” said Craig.

“One minute the (NHL) would ask me and then again the next minute they would ask me. I said, ‘Guys! We’re OK, we’re OK.’ That’s the thing I want people to understand. We had three zambonis out there with hot water and one without logos. All the hot water we could get.”

Since that day, the NHL’s tactics for building these outdoor rinks have evolved and grown more efficient.

“The first time we did it we built it just like we’d build a community rink with a sand-based floor,” said Craig. “I said that was the only way I was going to build it.”

Since then, Craig has reworked his ice-making process for outdoor games. The NHL changed strategies from the sand-based floor of 2003 to plastic tubing and flooring to aluminum pipe systems and a portable floor that can be monitored and regulated easily.

“There’s a lot of different things we’ve learned,” said Craig. “Every single time we go out, we learn.”

Those involved with creating outdoor games will be tasked to put those lessons learned to work again and again, including in October of this year when the Oilers step back outside for the 2016 Heritage Classic. This time, the game will not be played in Edmonton. It instead heads to Winnipeg, where it will be played at Investors Group Field, home of the Canadian Football League’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

While the modern-day Jets are a continuation of the relocated Atlanta Thrashers organization, this year’s Heritage Classic provides the team an opportunity to meld the current franchise with the previous Jets organization, which was moved to Arizona in 1996 and became the Coyotes.

“When we joined the NHL back in 2011, there was a lot to get done in a very short period of time,” said Winnipeg Jets Executive Chair Mark Chipman. “While we very much wanted to honour the history of the Jets back then, we were really more interested in doing so properly. As we began to think of how we could best do so, it occurred to us that hosting a Heritage Classic and building a series of events based around an outdoor game provided the most appropriate way to acknowledge the Winnipeg Jets.”

Centre ice is marked at Commonwealth Stadium for the 2003 Heritage Classic. Photo by Getty Images.

And so, with the Heritage Classic headed to Manitoba, the Oilers will face off against the Jets twice in one weekend. A legends game, featuring the alumni of both franchises, will be played on Saturday, Oct. 22, and a regular season game between the modern-day clubs will be contested on Sunday, Oct. 23.

“Mark Chipman reached out to us some months ago to say they were going ahead with the Heritage Classic here in Winnipeg and he thought it was fitting the Oilers would be the opponent,” said Lowe. “He asked if we in fact would want to be that opponent. We said right away we’re extremely honoured and can’t wait for that day to come.”

It’s fitting that, with the Jets wanting to pay homage to the past, the Oilers would be their opponent. The two franchises share history together, dating back to the World Hockey Association days of the 1970s.

“We had some great matchups and wonderful playoff series,” said Oilers great Wayne Gretzky, who will captain Edmonton’s legends squad.

“Before joining the NHL, Winnipeg was a powerhouse in the WHA, making the finals in five of the last seven of the league’s seasons and winning three championships, including defeating the Wayne Gretzky-led Oilers in the last playoff series in WHA history,” said Daly. “The rivalry continued when the teams joined the NHL, but success on the ice shifted in favour of the Oilers. Winnipeg and Edmonton faced off six times in the Stanley Cup playoffs between 1983 and 1990, with the Oilers emerging victorious in each of those series and going on to win five Stanley Cups during that period in 1984, 1985, 1987, 1988 and 1990.”

Those playoff series against the Jets stick out in the minds of Oilers alumni as hard-fought wins that don’t receive the respect or historical relevance they deserve.

“Although the majority of people talk about the Battle of Alberta, the competitiveness of the Jets and the bruises we experienced in those series and how close the Jets were, people never recognize,” said Lowe, who played 170 post-season games for the blue and orange. “The fact the Oilers had a great history with the Jets in the WHA and the great series of the 80s in the NHL really is a testimony to what could potentially happen in October of this year.”

When the Jets look back on those series, they lament the losses, but respect the rivalry.

“Somewhat disheartening, but you know what? People always tell me ‘too bad the Oilers were in your division.’ It was great because it was such a challenge and we looked forward to it all the time,” said Hockey Fall of Famer and former Jets forward Dale Hawerchuk, who will captain Winnipeg’s legends squad. “We were competitors. We loved to compete and they had a great hockey club. We couldn’t wait to play them and we can’t wait to play them again in October. It’s going to be exciting.”

As captain of the Jets alumni team, Hawerchuk has already reached out to players like Bobby Hull, Paul MacLean and Teemu Selanne to represent Winnipeg.

“This won’t be my first outdoor game in Winnipeg,” said Hawerchuk. “There were many nights while I was playing here that myself and my teammates would sneak out to the outdoor rink in Charleswood and have a little outdoor game. Sometimes, I’d put the pads on. We’d have a lot of fun. That was back in the day where there were no cellphones, but once a couple kids got an idea of who we were there was a pretty big crowd… I’m sure we’ll have a bigger one in October.”

Gretzky, leader the Oilers alumni team, has already recruited fellow legends Mark Messier, Paul Coffey and Jari Kurri, among many others.

“It’s just really an exciting time,” said Gretzky. “Hockey is so big right now throughout North America and especially across Canada. For us to be a small part of the event, we’re going to have fun and enjoy the weekend. The players today, the calibre of hockey is just so intense and so good. It’s fun to be a fan of the National Hockey League.

“We’re not as good as we used to be, but it will be a lot of fun.”

Having hockey legends take the ice in October brings back memories of 2003 for Lowe.

“Everyone remembers it was a magical day,” he said. “It was almost a surreal experience.”

Surreal and the start of something bigger than one event.

“I think it’s fair to say I don’t think anyone could have begun to imagine how much of an impact outdoor hockey would have on the NHL, our business and our fans, at the time the first Heritage Classic was played on Nov. 22, 2003 in Edmonton at Commonwealth Stadium,” said Daly. “It was a new and unique concept, developed and championed by the Edmonton Oilers organization and it was a concept that, despite all the challenges we faced in the inaugural game, not only proved successful but captured the imagination of our fans and sports fans everywhere.”

The Oilers spearheaded an event that both captured the imagination of hockey fans, but also brought back memories of days spent outside playing the sport that began there — out in the elements, with steam rising and cold air filling the lungs. They’ll get to relive the magic all over again this October.

By Chris Wescott/

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