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LaForge the founding father of NHL's outdoor empire

by Shawn P. Roarke / Edmonton Oilers
Oilers President & CEO Patrick LaForge.

(Photo by Andy Devlin/Edmonton Oilers Hockey Club)
Edmonton Oilers president Patrick LaForge will be like a proud parent as he sits in Calgary's McMahon Stadium on Feb. 20 for the 2011 Tim Hortons Heritage Classic.

LaForge will be surrounded by a group of people -- a support system, if you will -- that will understand the cauldron of parental emotions he experiences as the Calgary Flames play the Montreal Canadiens that night.

After all, the Heritage Classic is his baby, both literally and figuratively.

Back in 2002, LaForge was trying to think of a way to celebrate his team's 25th anniversary when he stumbled upon the idea of a regular-season NHL outdoor game.

"For us, we were reaching out for a slam dunk-great, home run-type idea for our 25th anniversary for a franchise that had some of the greatest players ever -- certainly in modern history and they were current and they were healthy and they still looked young," LaForge told "(Mark) Messier and (Wayne) Gretzky and (Jari) Kurri and all those guys, they still looked like almost they could play."

After almost a year of planning and some sleepless nights, the original Heritage Classic was played in Edmonton back on Nov. 7, 2003.

"We just looked at one another and we knew we had found the recipe for diamonds." -- Edmonton Oilers president Patrick LaForge

LaForge remembers standing there as darkness fell on that bitterly cold evening and getting goose bumps as he stood on the ice for the pre-game ceremonies and saw the jets fly overhead. Even though it was minus-22 Fahrenheit , the goose bumps were not from the biting cold, but rather from a sense of excitement as he stood next to NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and listened to more than 60,000 people belt out the Canadian national anthem.

"We just looked at one another and we knew we had found the recipe for diamonds," LaForge said. "You look at this and it's a special event in Edmonton and it is, maybe, one of the greatest events in the history of hockey; but you can do this just about anywhere."

And it has since been done lots of places.

The original Heritage Classic morphed into the Winter Classic in 2008 when the Pittsburgh Penguins and Buffalo Sabres played at Buffalo's Ralph Wilson Stadium. The next year, it was the Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings at Wrigley Field, followed by the Boston Bruins and the Detroit Red Wings at Fenway Park. This Jan. 1, it was the Washington Capitals and the Penguins at Heinz Field, home of the NFL's Pittsburgh Steelers.

But, now, the NHL's outdoor game returns to Canadian soil, its ancestral home thanks to LaForge.

LaForge admits he's a bit sad that Edmonton did not hold onto the outdoor game it created, making it a signature annual event for the City of Champions. But he admitted to feeling a surge of pride knowing that his gift to hockey has become one that keeps on giving all across the North American continent. 

"It's just amazing how well (the outdoor game) does so many things so well for us," LaForge said.

On Feb. 20, he will watch the game's transformation from a one-off celebration to the sport's crown jewel -- essentially hockey's version of the NFL's Super Bowl.

And he will do it in person.

That's right, LaForge will cross the demilitarized zone in the ever-raging Battle of Alberta to step foot in Calgary and be at McMahon Stadium as his team's on-ice rival takes hockey's center stage for the night.

"We're taking a busload down from the Heritage crew from 2003, drive down, sit together and enjoy the game," LaForge said.

Everyone in Edmonton that played a role in turning the original Heritage Classic into what it is today will likely be on that bus making the three-hour journey to Calgary. They will toast to the idea of a hockey lifetime and reminisce about the hurdles -- and there were many -- that had to be cleared to turn the Heritage Classic dream into reality.

And those founding mothers and fathers of the Heritage Classic -- so many of them Edmontonians that bleed Oiler blue -- will cheer (although not too loudly) Calgary's crowning moment. LaForge admits he will be at the forefront of the cheering section.

"On the ice, in the battle when we play them, I don't wish them anything good; everything bad," LaForge said. "But off the ice, off the regular game when we are not playing them, the better they do, the better for us because we challenge one another to do everything better.

"So when they are good at something, we have to reach down to get better. I think I wish them the best. I hope it is a sell-out, they have a glorious day and I hope it leaves everybody wanting more. That would be the perfect conclusion."

Judging by the past editions of LaForge's creation, it seems like a foregone conclusion that his wishes will come to pass in the 2011 Tim Hortons Heritage Classic.

Author: Shawn P. Roarke | Senior Managing Editor

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