Cold Comfort With the on-ice presence of immortals generating warmth, the NHL's venture into the great outdoors made for the hottest ticket in Edmonton

December 01, 2003

The man in section C-2, row 72, seat 4--about a dozen rows from
the top of a football stadium--wore eight layers of clothing and
carried a blanket, preparing to settle in for a long day of
hockey. The temperature in Edmonton last Saturday afternoon was
2° F, cold enough to turn a cup of beer into an alcoholic
Slurpee, but Jeff Pederson, a Baileys-and-coffee man, was
unfazed. "This is going to be one long party," said Pederson, a
32-year-old Edmontonian. "If you don't come from Canada, you
don't get it. The colder the better. Makes me feel tougher."
Pederson, bless him, puts the hype in hypothermia.

With weather better suited for Penguins than Oilers and
Canadiens, the NHL staged its first regular-season outdoor game
on the 86th anniversary of the league's inception. Bob Johnson,
the late coach, would have called it "a great day for hockey,"
and Ernie (Snow) Banks would have said, "Let's play two," which
Edmonton and Montreal did, starting with an alumni game between
players from the last two Canadian-based dynasties the league is
likely to see, followed by a regular-season two-pointer, won by
the Canadiens 4-3. On a rink constructed with 1,000 sheets of
plywood, 65 truckloads of sand, 800 feet of pipe and 205 tons of
refrigerated brine, pucks bounced drunkenly and goalies'
trappers turned from leather into bronze. But everyone
privileged enough to tug on a uniform swore publicly that he'd
had a historic time despite a temperature--down to -1° when the
puck was dropped--that should have made clutch-and-grab hockey
mandatory, for warmth if nothing else.

This was one game in which gaffe-prone Canadiens defenseman
Patrice Brisebois wasn't going to get undressed. The players wore
thermal undergarments, cowls under their helmets, mitts under
their hockey gloves, and hand and foot warmers. The only player
lightly dressed was another Montreal defenseman, Stephane
Quintal, who sported only a cowl with his customary gear because
he found the layers constricting. (Quintal is nicknamed Q, not IQ.)

There were 57,167 in Commonwealth Stadium, an NHL record, but the
place would have had to seat 900,000 to satisfy every ticket
request. Canada sheds its natural diffidence when it comes to
hockey, of course, but the palpable excitement over the Heritage
Classic, the sport's Woodstock, was practically worldwide. The
one locale in the hockey universe that seemed unmoved was the
United States, where the game was not available live on
television because the NHL's principal telecasters, ESPN and
ESPN2, were showing, respectively, Alabama-Auburn and the
Gamecocks versus Clemson, a big deal in the People's Republic of
South Carolina.

The alumni game was especially captivating, most notably because
of the reappearance of Wayne Gretzky in an Oilers uniform.
Gretzky, like the late Joe DiMaggio, eschews alumni games, but
the Phoenix Coyotes' managing partner, who last played for the
Oilers in the 1987-88 season, for once made an exception and put
on the oil-drop sweater. He was reunited with 42-year-old Mark
Messier, who's still playing (for the New York Rangers), thus
marking perhaps another first in the history of alumni games. The
outdoor setting, Gretzky, an active player--if this old-timers'
game had any more new wrinkles, it would have needed Botox.

After practice last Friday, Messier marveled at the resumption of
dangling conversations from the 1980s and at how the old,
once-freewheeling Oilers gravitated to their former seats on the
bus and in the dressing room. (The Montreal alumni also took
their accustomed places; winger Russ Courtnall was spotted in
front of the dressing-room mirror.) Rangers general manager and
coach Glen Sather, who had coached those Oilers to four Stanley
Cups and was brought back for the occasion to coach the
grandiosely named Oilers MegaStars, reveled in "the sparkle in
their eyes, the flash of their teeth and the way they smiled."
Said Sather, "After about 10 minutes [of practice in frigid
weather], I asked the group around me, 'You guys had enough?'
They said, 'Are you kidding?' They remembered the drills we used
to do like they stepped off the ice yesterday."

Given the NHL's looming labor problems, which threaten to wipe
out next season, the look back could hardly have been more
welcome for the league's image. The alumni game, won 2-0 by
Edmonton, was poetry in only moderately slow motion. The
30-minute match provided such touching moments as Messier's
helping groom the ice with a shovel after the first period,
Canadiens forward Stephane Richer's congratulating Grant Fuhr
after the Oilers goalie made a rapier-quick glove save on him,
and Guy Lafleur's again skating the wing even though the Demon
Blond's hair--or, more accurately, his plugs--could hardly fly
under the Canadiens toque. (That's ski hat to you.)

"This is going back to shinny hockey," said Steve Shutt,
Lafleur's old linemate. "No glitz. No glamour. With all the
things going on in pro hockey--now, for one day, people get a
chance to watch guys get on the ice and just play."

Of course, the Canadiens-Oilers game didn't stop when the puck
was fired into a snowbank, and the match didn't end with a
mother's hoarse cry of "Dinner!" Today's players grew up in a
Zamboni and ice-time world devoid of frostbite. For this
generation of NHL players, pond hockey was an occasional
diversion, not anything central to their careers. This was an
exercise in nostalgia for someone else's good old days.

The age of formal outdoor hockey effectively ended in 1961 after
the Trail (B.C.) Smoke Eaters won the world championships in
Switzerland playing four of their games outdoors in Lausanne.
There are still lower-division professional teams in Europe that
play in rinks with roofs but no walls, but outdoor hockey in
North America seemed ludicrous until Michigan State put a
jerry-built rink into Spartan Stadium in October 2001 and
attracted a record crowd of 74,554 to see a 3-3 draw against
Michigan. While other NHL cities, including Detroit and Toronto,
will ponder a stadium hockey game, the novelty could dissipate
more quickly than the crowd, the bulk of which stayed to the
bitter end even as the windchill factor hit -18.

The players had heated benches and changes of underwear, the
millionaire's version of the boyhood hot chocolate. "It was warm
on the bench," said Canadiens right wing Richard Zednik, who
scored twice. "[Usually] I don't like to be on the bench, but
tonight I found it exciting."

"How did you keep warm?" Montreal goaltender Jose Theodore was
asked.

"I didn't," he said. "I kept cold." Theodore had a toque affixed
atop his goalie mask, perhaps the first goalie since Jacques
Plante to wear one during a game. He is a butterfly goalie who
normally slides across the crease on his pads, but his equipment
was so stiff he simply couldn't. Theodore had to make up
saves--he had 34--as he went along. This was pond hockey, for
real.

In the end the numbers that history will recall are not 4-3 but
57,167 and -1. If the Oilers and the NHL wanted to give something
to their fans by playing outdoors on the cusp of a Prairie
winter, the Marine-tough Edmontonians more than returned the
dubious favor. Their motto: Many are cold but few are frozen.

SI.com
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COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID E. KLUTHO FROZEN IN TIME Among those basking in the reunion were the co-captains of the Oilers dynasty: Gretzky (kneeling, center) and Messier (third from the Great One's right). COLOR PHOTO: DAVE SANDFORD/GETTY IMAGES (THEODORE) TOQUING UP Habs goalie Theodore capped off his helmet, while the crowd enjoyed a sub-zero breath of fresh air. COLOR PHOTO: ANDY CLARK/REUTERS [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO (GRETZKY) SHOVEL PASS After Gretzky (below) had taken a rare shift, Messier (11) and Craig Simpson helped manicure the ice. COLOR PHOTO: MIKE BLAKE/REUTERS [See caption above]

The game between the Canadiens and Oilers didn't end with A
MOTHER'S HOARSE CRY of "Dinner!"

"This is going back to SHINNY HOCKEY," said Shutt. "No glitz. No
glamour. People can watch guys just play."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)