Print and Go Back ESPN.com: NHL [Print without images]

Wednesday, November 19, 2003
Updated: November 22, 5:34 PM ET
Oilers, Canadiens meet on grand stage

By Scott Burnside
Special to ESPN.com

In a season awash in tragedy, bad news and the promise of worse news ahead, the Heritage Classic stands as a lonely beacon on an otherwise grim hockey landscape.

In a matter of days, 56,169 hardy (and we assume well-insulated) souls will make NHL history by attending the first-ever outdoor game in National Hockey League history when the Edmonton Oilers face the Montreal Canadiens.

The transformation of Commonwealth Stadium began at 10 p.m., Sunday, Nov. 9, with the leveling off of the football field.
The event, which will be preceded by an alumni game between former Edmonton greats and their counterparts from the Montreal Canadiens that likely will mark Wayne Gretzky's last-ever hockey game, takes the game itself onto its grandest, if chilliest stage, and may well set the standard for future outdoor games.

The Heritage Classic (so named because it coincides with the 86th anniversary of the founding of the National Hockey League as well as marking the 25th anniversary of the Oilers' inception), represents a chance to look beyond the shadows cast by the impending labor clash that threatens the game's survival, to the very roots of the game itself.

"This is a celebration of what hockey's all about," said Allan Watt, Oilers vice president of marketing. "This is a celebration of getting that first pair of skates, of playing on a peewee team, of then becoming a fan when you realized that you were skating on your ankles and everyone else wasn't, so you became a hockey fan."

The regular-season game between the Oilers and Canadiens is driven by colossal logistical elements and likewise has generated colossal interest that at least for a moment should bathe the league in a warm glow instead of the harsh light of criticism that marks much recent press.

From the moment the game was announced, the host Oilers were besieged with requests for tickets and inquires about how to obtain said ducats from as far afield as Africa, Bosnia and Texas.

To prevent hockey grandmas from having to sleep overnight in lawn chairs to get a crack at tickets that range in price from $46-$104 and $268 for suite holders and other VIPs, organizers established an electronic lottery that drew 700,000 applications.

A draw for 7,000 general seats included one enterprising entry attached to an alarm clock set to go off at the precise moment of the draw. Organizers weren't sure whether to call police, Watt said.

The lure of the outdoor event has led even Gretzky to break one of his sacred vows, that he would never play in an old-timers' game. Given the opportunity to play outdoors in November in the city where he helped make the Oilers a dynasty by winning four Stanley Cups, Gretzky has embraced the idea.

Workers laid 800 feet of pipe through which 205 tons of refrigerated brine will flow to freeze the ice on the main and practice rinks.
"This will be my last game," Gretzky said this week.

An added bonus may be the chance to stand alongside old friend Mark Messier for one last time.

He is not alone.

Glen Sather will be behind the Oiler greats' bench and he has hinted he will bring along Messier, who may even suit up for the alumni game.

"Every guy that ever wore the oil drop wanted to play and (former Montreal Canadien) Rejean Houle said the same thing (about the Habs' retirees)," Watt said.

Players from both current NHL squads, regardless of their heritage, have talked with great anticipation about the game, even though they may be forced to wear additional layers of long, thermal underwear and/or balaclava-style headgear under their helmets to protect them from the Alberta winds.

"After school you'd rush home, grab your skates and go out and play hockey," Montreal captain Saku Koivu told reporters in Edmonton recently. "When you were walking there, you were so anxious. It was hockey at its best."

"It's going to be a once-in-a-lifetime chance to play there so it's going to be a special day. No doubt about it," the native of Finland added.

"It's going to be an amazing time," echoed teammate Craig Rivet. "The first NHL game outside. The Canadiens against the Oilers. It's going to be like well, almost a dream come true."

Of all the logistical hoops that organizers have leapt through in the months leading up to the game, the weather seems to be the least of their worries, at least in theory.

Detailed analysis of weather patterns dating back a dozen years and beyond have led to the consensus that it will be neither too cold nor too hot, neither will there be any rain nor too much snow.

"We've got a hell of a chance of it being between plus-3 (Celsius) and minus-8 at five o'clock (mountain time) and that's what we're working with," Watt said.

"Could it be minus-40? Yeah. Would that be too cold to play? Yeah."

But those are the chances you take when you put on an NHL game outdoors in a football stadium in the middle of November, Watt said.

The idea for the game sprang from a trip to the annual All-Star Game in Los Angeles two years ago. The Oilers' marketing contingent at that game were discussing how playing host to an All-Star Game in Edmonton would be great and how having it outdoors would be a novel concept. But it's a bit nippy in Edmonton in February, and the concept didn't really jibe with the league's goals for the annual All-Star schmooze-fest.

"At about the same time all of the light bulbs and toggle switches went on," in both Edmonton and at the league offices in New York, Watt said.

By the third day, the hockey rink began to take shape.
What about a regular-season game outside?

"And honest to God that's almost exactly how it happened. We were all phoning each other at the same time."

The process of turning Commonwealth Stadium, home to the Canadian Football League's Edmonton Eskimos, into a temporary home for the Oilers and the Canadiens, brings to mind the Army Corps of Engineers. Because the football field is slightly sloped to allow for water runoff, some 65 truckloads of sand were brought in to level the surface supporting the ice. To bring in the trucks, a temporary road similar to those used by oil rigs that haul equipment in northern Canada had to be built into the stadium proper.

As well as the regulation size NHL rink (which will include heated benches and/or extended protective glass to give players relief from the elements), there will be a second, smaller ice surface built for entertainment during the weekend.

"We've put together the best crew I would ever try and assemble," said Dan Craig, who has been the NHL's ice guru (facility operations manager) since 1997 and was formerly the ice master for the Oilers. Craig also helped arrange the outdoor game between Michigan and Michigan State two years ago.

Costs will be in the millions, including almost $800,000 for the ice itself, Watt said. Special VIP bleachers for the 72 suite holders normally ensconced at Skyreach Center were built for between $380,000-$540,000.

When all is said and done, Watt said he hopes revenues will also be "several million dollars" although there's a chance the team could make upwards of $1.5 million.

One of the bonuses, Watt added, is that none of the events connected to the Heritage Classic, including a showcase of the NHL's trophies normally on display at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, requires wearing a tie.

"Not one thing."

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.