EDMONTON - As if there was any doubt, Edmonton's passion, support and appreciation for the Oilers and the purity of our great game was on display Sunday at Hawrelak Park.
At least 1,500 diehard Oilers fans braved the elements as the entire 2012-13 roster participated in an impromptu game of shinny, spontaneously dubbed a 'Shinny Mob,' outdoors on the pond in the city's majestic river valley.
"It's unbelievable," said veteran defenceman Ryan Whitney, clearly wowed by the bundled-up crowd as the mercury dipped below -15 degrees Celsius at puck drop. "I think everyone's pretty upset and apologetic that it took this long to get going. But we're all very lucky and we never take the fan support in Edmonton for granted; this is an unbelievable hockey market. There are a lot of places that might struggle with attendance for a while, but we know this community loves the Oilers and that makes it a lot of fun for us players."
"I found out about this game when I arrived at the airport this afternoon," said Magnus Paajarvi who, along with Colten Teubert, Chris VandeVelde and Teemu Hartikainen, was recalled from the AHL's Oklahoma City Barons Sunday. "It was a surprise to me, but it's been an amazing, awesome event.
"The crowd has been sick (cool), too. I love it."
Oilers President and COO Patrick LaForge said that, while the event was most certainly an offering to the fans as a result of the League's lengthy labour dispute, it was equally as important to bring this year's edition of the Oilers together as one with the community and share in a moment spearheaded by Oil Country's love of the game.
"This event was a team effort from the very beginning, because it involved a lot of guys from the Czech Republic, Russia, all over the United States and Canada," he explained. "How do you get a feel for Edmonton until you play a game outdoors?
"The idea came about as the lockout was dwindling in a certain direction and we were thinking, 'What can we do [for our fans]?'"
Sunday's game was a collaborative venture between the Oilers and the City of Edmonton, of which the hockey club incurred all costs to execute. Due to the signing of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement late Saturday night and Training Camps opening League-wide 12 hours later, the event was formally announced two-and-a-half hours prior to puck drop by Twitter vets @ebs_14 and @hallsy04.
In a process that originally began this past Tuesday, the rink and ice surface was built from scratch and perfected to match the region's unpredictable weather patterns. Mike Craig of Top Shelf Arena Services was brought in to help construct the ice surface and support the event daily until game time.
Craig, the son of NHL Facilities Operations Manager, Dan, had previously worked at the 2003 Heritage Classic, 2010 Winter Olympics and each NHL Winter Classic since its inception in 2008.
In order to bring the ice up to NHL standards, it had to be shaved repeatedly until it was perfectly level. Once completed and in an effort to keep the sheet pristine, it was manually resurfaced a total of 10 times.
Craig's meticulous standards helped the event go off without a hitch.
"It's honestly some of the best ice I've ever skated on," Whitney said. "We've had such a good time out here. It's bringing us all back to our roots of when we were younger."
Once the Oilers entered the ice to the roaring applause of the chilly but equally as rambunctious crowd, captain Shawn Horcoff divided the teams with the pond hockey tradition of 'sticks in the middle.' Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Justin Schultz and Ryan Whitney highlighted the star power on Team Blue, while Team White countered with Ales Hemsky, Jordan Eberle and Devan "Brett Hull" Dubnyk at right wing.
"I'm not even sure what position I'm supposed to be playing," said Dubnyk, who was wearing the skates of Oilers Video Coach, Myles Fee. "They're way too big. I'm a big guy as it is, but these are about two sizes too big. I think if I'm going to have any success out there, I need to bear down and keep it simple. Real simple."
"I couldn't wait to see him get out there," laughed Jordan Eberle. "He can barely even stand up -- "Hey, are you talking about me while I'm sitting right here?!" Teubert chimed in -- on the bench, but he actually moves pretty well. I don't understand it."
When all was said and done, the goalie-turned-winger collected a pair of goals and was one of White's most dangerous players throughout. Blue got off to an incredible start, but it was Dubnyk and Sam Gagner that pulled the colourless bunch back into it.
After putting up an eight-point night nearly a year ago vs. Chicago at Rexall Place, Gagner one-upped his own performance by securing an unofficial Oilers record with nine(ish) points in White's comeback win. Like a true pro, No. 89 was quick to give credit to his teammates. Well, sort of.
"(Jeff) Petry is making it all happen out there -- he's driving the net hard and making it easy on me," he said after scoring his hat trick goal. "We've fought our way back in this one. It's hugely important that we keep the pedal down. To be honest I didn't expect much, if anything, from Dubey. I had to step up to keep us in the game."
Gagner's performance was inspirational to some, but seemed to irk the other side -- questionable (or dishonourable) scorekeeping, perhaps?
"If Sam's happy getting eight points or breaking records or whatever when the score is 20-8, then good for him," Whitney said. "We're destroying White right now."
"Yeah, well, Ryan can't count so I don't blame him for thinking that," laughed Petry.
Fortunately, in an event like this, it's not the score -- but the experience and atmosphere in the Heartland of Hockey -- that counts most of all.
-- Ryan Dittrick, edmontonoilers.com | Follow me on Twitter @ryandittrick