Today we give thanks for hockey and hope that our weather is a bit warmer than in Edmonton on November 22, 2003. From the time of its inception until that date, the NHL had never played a regular-season game outdoors. That chilly November night, the Edmonton Oilers hosted the Montreal Canadiens in the first Heritage Classic.
Edmonton had a dry, biting cold around -18.59 C (-1.46 F) at puck drop. Despite the cold, the record crowd of 57,167 spectators came early and bundled up enough to last through the two games at Commonwealth Stadium. Oilers alum Mark Messier exclaimed, “Not only did 57,000 fans come to the game, they came with enthusiasm. I guess that’s what makes Edmonton special. It’s the people that make this town so special.” Edmonton Oilers president Patrick LaForge found it “magical” how “it seemed everybody in Canada needed to be there that weekend.” For those who could not, CBC TV broadcast the games to 2.7 million viewers.
Those on the ice found creative ways of staying warm. The true star of the game was the toque (wool hat) worn over the mask of Canadiens goalie Jose Theodore. He explained, “I remember that my mom always said, ‘Put a toque on – you’re going to catch a cold.’ So I decided to make sure she’s not going to say anything when I go back home.” During period breaks, Theodore drank hot beverages trying to warm up. “My hands were really cold and my leg muscles really tightened up. With the cold, all my equipment and pads got so stiff it was just hard to keep your focus.” His teammate, Sheldon Souray, noted, “But we all had to wear extra underwear, we all had to prepare differently and we all had to play on ice that was less than ideal. But both teams came out of it and came out with a really good experience.” The Canadiens even had chicken soup served on their bench. As for the Oilers, Mike York apparently wore “long underwear and a neoprene balaclava” under his gear. He also went through five sticks because, as he explained, “You couldn’t overhandle the puck, you had to make simple plays. The sticks got frozen and it was hard to shoot at times. But it was the same for both teams.” Whereas his teammate, Georges Laraque, commented, “The weather wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. Once you start playing you forget about that. It was the ice and the passing, and the longer the period went on, the harder it was.” The game had already been about 20 minutes late in starting because the ice needed some work. The officials also had to combat the cold by smearing Vaseline on their faces. Even though they wrapped their whistles in tape to prevent them from freezing to their lips, the whistles couldn’t really make sound in the cold.
Before the official game, the Oilers’ and Canadiens’ alumni faced off. Messier, as part of the Oilers’ 1980s dynasty, received special permission from the New York Rangers to play. According to an Edmonton Journal recap, “The oldtimers competed hard, put on a splendid, if somewhat slower show than in their prime. They scraped the ice between the two 15-minute periods of the game won by the ex-Oilers 2-0.” Wayne Gretzky, who started his NHL career with the Oilers, felt that all the events were “just tremendous for everybody” and that “it was a great day for hockey.” He went on, “Edmontonians should be proud of this. The fans were wonderful, the players were excited, it was really magical out there.” He doubted that it could ever really be duplicated. He and Guy Lafleur from the Canadiens then dropped the ceremonial puck for the active captains of their old teams.
The Heritage Classic game would count towards the NHL standings. The Canadiens were “at the end of a frustrating five-game road trip” while the Oilers had won four straight games. The Canadiens took the lead early on with goals by Richard Zednik and Yanic Perreault. Both Zednik and Perreault scored again in the third period. Meanwhile, the Oilers almost caught up with goals by Jarret Stoll, Eric Brewer, and Steve Staios. The game ended 4-3 in the Canadiens’ favor. “It’s the perfect way to end the road trip,” said Canadiens Joe Juneau. “If that’s the last game they play outside, we wanted to be a part of history. We wanted to be the team that won it.” On the other hand, the home team still had some work to do. Coach Craig MacTavish noted, “It was a great day with one exception, we didn’t take care of our part.” He explained that they knew the weather would be an issue, especially with the ice quality, but the Canadiens “got the better of the bounces.” Similarly, Oilers Scott Ferguson commented, “I don’t think either team knew what to expect. We weren’t even sure if the game was going to go ahead, or what the ice was going to be like. “But we came out and played hard and so did they.”
Writing for the Edmonton Journal, John MacKinnon waxed poetic. “This was as deeply Canadian a spectacle as anyone could conjure. . . . It was the all-Canadian neighbourhood rink writ large and beamed coast to coast, truly the game of our lives shared with the whole country. It was the two best hockey franchises in our history, their legacies of excellence interwoven, remembering that hockey is a game above all and that the rink is a community’s winter gathering place.” The Heritage Classic was considered such a success that other outdoor games followed, turning into the annual Winter Classic.
- John MacKinnon, “Shinny Night in Canada,” Edmonton Journal, 23 Nov. 2003.
- Joanne Ireland, “Canadiens spoil Edmonton’s party,” Edmonton Journal, 23 Nov. 2003.
- Scott McKeen, “A hockey memory to cherish,” Edmonton Journal, 23 Nov. 2003.
- Mike Commito, Hockey 365: Daily Stories from the Ice (Toronto: Dundurn, 2018), 366.