Last month the NHL staged its 30th annual outdoor hockey game at Lake Tahoe between the Colorado Rockies and the Vegas Golden Knights. After starting at 3 p.m. the game had to be postponed until midnight because the desert sun deteriorated the ice conditions. It reminded me of the very first NHL outdoor game in Edmonton between the Oilers and the Montreal Canadiens on November 22, 2003.
Believe it or not 57,000 idiots jammed Commonwealth Stadium in a -30°C deep freeze, easily setting the record for the most people ever to attend an NHL game. I say ‘idiots’ but at least I didn’t forget my mittens.
Balaclavas hiding faces, scarves around necks, hoods over heads — we looked like either a gang of robbers about to knock off the Bank of Antartica or people preparing for the COVID-19 pandemic eighteen years ahead of time.
So there I was in the heartland of hockey at the Heritage Classic, wide-eyed, weather beaten and watching the greatest professional players of my time… play pond hockey.
For half a hundred thousand frost-bitten fans, it was dull, achy, freeze-your-ass-off kind of bone-chilling cold. But as they like to say in Edmonton, it was a dry freeze-your-ass-off kinda cold.
So how cold was it? At one point we thought the fog had rolled in until we realized it was our own collective breath.
Beer sellers kept returning to the catering centre with frozen cups of beer. When you could snag a beer it came with a wooden stir stick — not exaggerating here — to break up the ice. In the men’s washroom I heard a guy yell, “It’s okay, I found it!” Yeah whistles were freezing on and off the ice.
It was so cold that the announcer who asked us all to “stand and remove your hats for the singing of the national anthem” got the second biggest laugh of the day.
The guy who got the biggest laugh was the streaker who jumped onto the field during the second period wearing one sock and a T-shirt. He began his ‘starkers odessey’ a dozen rows down in my section. He’d have streaked earlier but with a seven layer minimum dress code like the rest of us, it took him an hour to get down to skin.
I believe he was attempting to set some sort of record for streaking a sports event in arctic conditions. Instead — and those fans with binoculars would back me up on this — he set a world record for shrinkage that will stand forever.
I’ll never forget the moment he hit the field because I was exiting my row on the way to get a sausage on a bun and… and he certainly put me off that.
A Keystone Cops episode ensued in which the streaker, now being chased by uniformed security guards kept dodging them by running around and then over a long metal pylon with an ad for McDonald’s. Lucky man, because at -30°C that ‘tongue on the pump handle’ thing could have been painfully embarrassing.
In the midst of this charade commenter Don Cherry yelled at the security officers, “Hold up a blanket! He’ll run to you!” The next day all the Edmonton papers ran a photo of the streaker upside down on the pylon beside the McDonald’s slogan “I’m lovin’ it!”
The streaker, a young welder from Fort St. John, was caught but not charged and his name was never released. Yet, he made quite the impression, “Stubby” did.
On and on it went on a sunny Saturday in Edmonton — amid non-stop applause and constant foot stamping —mainly to promote circulation. There were people as far and as high up as you could see, happy, light-headed, loony and sharing something very special. Tens of thousands of the toughest, truest fans in sports, Edmonton fans, watched some of the greatest hockey players that ever lived… be kids again.
There was way more interest in the first match, the MegaStars old-timers game between Edmonton and Montreal with Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Guy Lafleur, Larry Robinson. Unable to resist the urge, The Great One and Messier grabbed scrapers and cleaned the rink themselves.
Suddenly there we were, me and Malcom Hilton back in Dain City, pouring our shoulders into the shovels, clearing a foot of snow off Dain City’s skating rink, which happened to be in my backyard. And you could set your watch by it, the minute we finished scraping the ice, the Arnott and Beard kids would come scrambling over the mounds of snow, in full gear and ready to play.
Back then it was always cold and the winters were long; we were young and the best of times were spent on glassy rinks in every part of the land. Rubber boots served as goal posts and the fat guy always got chosen first… to be the goalie. You pretended not to hear your mother’s call to the table, you played until you actually forgot your feet were frozen. I mean back in the ‘50s, Canada was just an awkward, innocent kid itself.
Edmonton’s Heritage Classic may have been the most nostalgic day in Canadian sports history. Mainly because we all started the same way, you, me, Gretzky and Lafleur — on a backyard pond or a smooth blue lake or a slow river where the ice was black and deep.
Once in a while this country does something so utterly and wonderfully Canadian, it almost breaks your heart. A belated thank you to Edmonton — for “The November To Remember,” the greatest hockey excursion of them all —the one that takes you home again to that rink in your own backyard.
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