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The Magic of the Outdoors

As the Oilers gear up to take on the Jets for the 2016 Heritage Classic, Cam Tait reflects on the importance of the outdoor game and Edmonton's role in bringing it to the NHL

by Cam Tait @camtait / EdmontonOilers.com

Video: Gretzky on upcoming Heritage Classic alumni game

Perhaps, it's the passage of time that makes us appreciate how far we've come.

Six weeks have passed since we celebrated the opening of Rogers Place in downtown Edmonton.

The state-of-the-art facility is the new home to the Oilers and Oil Kings. In fact, it's in use this evening as the Western Hockey League (WHL) Oil Kings take on the Prince Albert Raiders.

Then, Saturday afternoon, the Oilers will face off against the Winnipeg Jets - not at Rogers Place or the MTS Centre but at Investors Group Field.

Outdoors.

Does the name Heritage Classic ring a familiar sound against the glass?

In Edmonton, it certainly does. Because on an unbelievably cold November day in 2003 - and believe me, it was cold: I was there - the Oilers and Montreal Canadiens played in the very first Heritage Classic.

Not just one game. Two.

The venerable alumni from the Oilers and the Canadiens franchises took to Commonwealth Stadium in front of over 57,000 fans. Then, after the ice was cleared, the Oilers and Canadiens, with the rosters of the day, played the first regular season National Hockey League (NHL) outdoor game in modern history.

Since the Oilers originally came up with the outdoor concept it has blossomed across the NHL with over a dozen outdoor games to date.

Now, skate forward 13 years since that cold day at Commonwealth. The Oilers play their second outdoor game against the Jets - alumni and current rosters.

Past Oilers greats including Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Grant Fuhr, Glenn Anderson and Paul Coffey will face the Jets alumni: Thomas Steen, Dave Ellett, Dave Babych and Teemu Selanne.

It will renew memories of some of the wonderful hockey games between the Oilers and Jets in the 1980s. 

Then, on Sunday, the Oilers and Jets of the present day do battle again outdoors. It will be great to see Connor McDavid and his teammates face off against Patrik Laine and the Jets on an outdoor rink.

While the outdoor game still draws attention from hockey fans all over, it's a gentle reminder of where the game started.

Long before covered arenas - that's what I remember them being called when I was a kid in the 1960s - we met at the nearest outdoor community rink for hockey games.

Who can forget playing under the bright lights on a cold winter's night, sitting on snowbanks and huddling to keep warm? We hoped it was a high-scoring game because the more we clapped for goals the warmer we would be.

The outdoor rinks brought hockey families together in a very unique way.

But time does move on.

We now have beautiful buildings around the league, like Rogers Place. We enjoy all the amenities they bring. 

We're reminded, however, where hockey began.

Maybe that's why we have such an appreciation for outdoor games...and to watch retired greats of the game play in an environment where they started.

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