Robertson’s Rant: The Good Ol’ Hockey Game III – Heritage Classic Weekend

Author’s note: The title of this post comes from a “series” of two posts I had made at a friend’s website, where I used to occasionally write before coming here. The first was about going to a Hitmen playoff game in 2005; the second was about going to a Predators game in Nashville in 2006. Note also that, if they’re not there already, I should have some photos from the weekend up on Flickr here in the next couple of days.

Back when the original Heritage Classic in Edmonton was announced in 2003, I figured it would be a one-off: a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to watch a real NHL game outside, and reconnect with the roots of the sport. In spite of its initial success, I never thought the outdoor game was something that the NHL would pursue, given the logistics of converting a football stadium and the unpredictability of Mother Nature. Here in Calgary, for example, Chinook winds can carry you from -20°C to +5°C in the span of a day. Sure enough, though, after the lockout, the idea took root in the US and became a ratings bonanza, at least relative to the NHL’s usual anaemic performance. Eventually, rumours began circulating that the Flames were seeking to host a Winter Classic at McMahon Stadium, but I didn’t think it would ever happen: it was just too good for American TV to ever ship back up to Canada.

Fast forward to last summer and the announcement of a second Heritage Classic, to be held right here in Calgary, with the Montreal Canadiens again playing as the visitors. It would be a dedicated game for Canada, separate from the Winter Classic, with an all-Canadian matchup and all-Canadian slate of sponsors, led by a certain donut chain with strong ties to the game. While I figured the game itself would be too expensive (in the end, the best offer I got was still north of $400 a pair), there were sure to be lots of hockey-related festivities befitting a host city. If nothing else, the Calgary Hitmen, a junior team owned by the Calgary Flames, would be playing on the same ice the day after the main event, and as a season-ticket holder, I’d have access to that game as part of my regular package. So I was stoked.

Now that the weekend has come and gone, I wanted to share some of the experiences that came with it. I may not have gotten to go to the Heritage Classic itself, but I did get to enjoy a number of unique events that’ll probably mean more to me in the long run, anyway.

Friday, February 18: Battle of the Farmhands of Alberta

The weekend kicked off with the Flames’ AHL affiliate, the Abbotsford Heat, “hosting” the Oilers’ AHL affiliate, the Oklahoma City Barons, at the Saddledome. There were still $20 seats available a couple of days beforehand, so I joined my regular seatmates from the Hitmen games just a few seats over from where we normally sit. I didn’t know much about either team, having only seen a handful of these players in preseason games, but I was at least familiar with a couple of recent-vintage Hitmen alumni: Abbotsford’s Keith Seabrook (brother of Brent) and OKC’s Alex Plante.

In the end, the appeal of the event wound up having little to do with the game itself. While seeing the old Hitmen and young Oilers prospects in action was nice, the game itself wasn’t all that entertaining: OKC won the tentative affair 3-1 on a pair of late third-period goals, including an empty-netter. The real fun of the game was interacting with the people there. My seatmates and I spent some time razzing each other about our choices of affiliation, and cracking jokes about Martin Gerber’s tendency to retreat all the way into his net when the play was at the other end of the ice (someone called him a “turtle”). When I jumped up and cheered the first OKC goal of the night, I looked around and found myself to be the only Oilers fan in the section, which was pretty funny in its own right. The intermission shows were the usual minor-league brand of bizarre, with human bowling and human hamster balls as the two events. Best of all, though, was getting to meet a couple of writers for my favourite Oilers blog, Copper and Blue, in Bruce McCurdy (accredited through his new gig at the Edmonton Journal’s Cult of Hockey blog, and originator of the above subtitle) and Lisa McRitchie. They came over during the second intermission, and while Lisa went down to get some action shots, Bruce stayed and chatted until about halfway through the third. It was a fun conversation, and while I didn’t catch much of the game while it was happening, but in checking the stats after, I don’t think I missed much. I did catch the part that counted, though, as the Barons scored two goals in the final 1:06 to clinch the victory.

Before we left the arena, our friends told us that Yvan “Roadrunner” Cournoyer and Henri “Pocket Rocket” Richard, two Montreal Canadiens legends and Hockey Hall of Famers, would be signing autographs at a mall just north of the city at 11:00 the next morning. We couldn’t not go: Mom grew up in Montreal with the dynasties of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and I cheered for the team when I was a kid, living the glory of the ’93 Cup win and absorbing every morsel of history I could.

Saturday, February 19: Meeting les Anciens Glorieux

We got to the signing with our tickets around 11:30, by which point the line-up was already snaking all around the store they’d been set up in. Little wonder: for a $25 charitable donation, you’d get a Heritage Classic puck signed by both legends, and a picture taken with your own camera if you wanted; for a few dollars more, the organizers would let you put pretty much anything you wanted in front of them to sign. Some people had brought photo albums, history books, original Forum programmes from the 1960s, DVDs of historical games, you name it. I brought my 1943 vintage replica jersey, the kind the Habs wore as a third jersey a few years ago, while my mom brought a Henri Richard hockey card from the early 1970s and a Habs commemorative card from the NHL’s 75th anniversary celebrations in 1992. Behind us was a lady who had brought a commemorative book of every Canadiens Hall of Famer, Yvan Cournoyer’s entry bookmarked for signing, and a scrapbook with pictures of herself and Henri Richard from a signing event many years ago. We wound up chatting during the long line-up, and eventually went to coffee afterward.

When we got to the front, Mom and I were both on cloud nine. We laid out each item in turn, and got them all signed by the appropriate person. Mom explained the card she gave Cournoyer by telling him that she’d looked all over and couldn’t find a card of his in her collection; he joked that they’d “all sold out.” Mom thanked the two for the years of good memories they’d given her, we got our pictures taken, and without hesitation, they offered their hands to shake, which absolutely floored me. Who offers to shake the fans’ hands? We were just about to leave when I checked the camera we’d borrowed and saw…the pictures hadn’t saved! We were horrified. We checked with the people there, and they checked with Cournoyer and Richard, and they were amenable to retakes. I made sure the camera worked this time, and we got our picture at last. It wasn’t something they had to do by any means, but I get the feeling they’re used to people getting a bit flustered and forgetting something because they’re meeting their heroes: the lady behind us forgot to get her puck signed, and was also allowed to go back and have the oversight corrected. The whole experience showed just how classy and friendly these gentlemen are, as all of les anciens glorieux are, and how lucky the game is to have ambassadors like them.

Afterward, as we walked towards the coffee shop, Mom and I were over the moon. We just met the Roadrunner and the Pocket Rocket! At coffee, we talked with the lady from the line for nearly an hour about Habs memories, historical tidbits, and the age-old Halak vs. Price debate. We eventually had to go – it was 3 PM and we hadn’t had lunch yet – but it was great to meet a couple of new friends by chance, and wonderful beyond words to spend time with two legends of the game.

Sunday, February 20: The Heritage Classic

Sunday was the most ordinary day of the lot, with all my efforts to procure affordable tickets to the game ending unsuccessfully. It’s probably just as well, not only because the windchill dipped below -20°C, but also because the game, frankly, was kind of a dud.

To be sure, part of the problem was simply that the Habs got their asses kicked. But because of the low base temperature (around -12°C), ice conditions were less than ideal for an NHL-level game. The pucks hopped around crazily, players lost their edges more than usual, guys held up on hits, and both teams wound up giving up a lot of bad chances that they ordinarily wouldn’t. The result was a sloppily-played game all around, though Montreal was far and away the worse team for most of the game. They appeared, for a time, to have gotten their act together in the second period, but a shorthanded goal by Anton Babchuk made the game 2-0 partway through the period and all but sealed it. I have to admit, towards the end, I kind of wanted to see some history made. While Rene Bourque ultimately didn’t complete the first-ever outdoor hat trick, Miikka Kiprusoff did get the first-ever outdoor shutout in NHL history. The angles for the game – something Eddie and Doug had complained about with the Winter Classic – were good throughout, and seeing the game both in the Sun and under the lights was a nice treat.

After the game, I made arrangements to meet Canadiens and international hockey blogger Bruce Peter and his dad at a Chinese place near McMahon Stadium. We talked about hockey in pretty much every form you can think of: we talked about the Heritage Classic itself, the upcoming trade deadline and the recent trading flurry, the state of hockey development in eastern Europe (among other international topics), and the coping mechanisms needed when rooting for a bad team. After dropping the Peters at their car at the end of the night, I went pretty much straight to bed, because tomorrow, for me, was the big day.

Monday, February 21: WHL Outdoors

After parking and eating at the University, we walked down to the stadium and met up with our regular seatmates. Before the game, we headed into the merchandise tent and found that all the previous day’s stuff was 50% off. Score! We each got a couple of things and then went inside, arriving at our section just as the players were filing off the ice from warm-ups. That was when I got my first real look at the setup in McMahon, and it was certainly a special moment. I don’t know if it had the same impact as my first time at ice level of the Saddledome – I’ve been to McMahon for a few football games before – but I definitely enjoyed getting a good look in person at some of the stuff I’d seen on TV the day before. The three broadcast booths from the day before still sat behind the penalty boxes, but now the RDS booth had been redecorated in the colours of Rogers Sportsnet and the WHL Outdoors game. The temporary studios for CBC and Versus were still standing, but being packed up throughout the game. On the side where the players entered, there was a miniature sheet of ice for kids to play on, and on our side of the field were the giant Canadiens, Flames, and NHL logos, visible seemingly from orbit. Looming high above it all was the temporary scoreboard plunked in front of the regular McMahon Stadium scoreboard with possibly the largest video screen I’ve ever seen in my life. When we were shown on it before the game, I think I may have been about ten feet tall. Sitting.

The temperature for the game hovered around the freezing mark throughout, with only occasional winds bringing a serious chill. Being about ten degrees warmer than the previous evening did wonders for the ice and the game itself: it was faster, the players were less tentative about hitting and less prone to spilling for no apparent reason, and the puck didn’t bounce around like a tennis ball. It was probably the best-played of the games I saw that weekend, because it was the most like a regular, indoor game. Of course, despite the relative mildness, we were still dressed to the nines in thermal layers: longjohns, long-sleeve shirt, hoodie, jacket, sweet hat, double-layered gloves, and hand and foot warmers. It’s a good thing we did, too: after two hours, my feet started to freeze without the warmers, and when that wind picked up, it was nice to have two hoods to insulate my neck.

Before and during the game, the Hitmen honoured the history of junior hockey in Calgary. They started with the first Albertan team to win the Memorial Cup, the 1926 Calgary Canadians, then followed up with a couple of more recent franchises that have come and gone – the Calgary Buffaloes/Centennials, now the Tri-City Americans, and the Calgary Wranglers, now the Lethbridge Hurricanes – before finishing with our Hitmen. Throughout the game, during TV timeouts, videos were played commemorating the history of each team, their impact on the hockey world, and the legacy they left with the players. These were supplemented with interviews with team representatives, who all lauded Calgary’s junior hockey tradition and some of the key personnel involved. A key name that kept coming up was that of trainer “Bearcat” Murray, a fixture behind the Flames’ bench in the ‘80s and ‘90s and Mr. Everything – from bottle-washer to bus driver, as one put it – for the junior teams that came before. As someone with a long-standing interest in the history of the game, it was fun to learn a few new things about the legacy of the sport in the city prior to the Flames’ arrival. I wonder if the Flames did the same with the history of the pro game in Calgary, honouring their predecessors, the Tigers, Stampeders, and Cowboys.

In amongst all that, of course, there was a hockey game. It took a few minutes to acclimatize to the new angle, new jerseys, and strange circumstance: it was almost like we weren’t at a hockey game, at times, which made it hard to get into the play at first. But then, just two and a half minutes in, the Pats made it 1-0, and suddenly it became much easier to focus. A few penalties disrupted the flow midway through the first – the Hitmen wound up going 0/3 on maybe two minutes of actual power-play time, if that gives any indication – but it proceeded surprisingly well from there, with the pace picking up as the players got used to the situation. After one, the score remained 1-0 Regina.

Early in the second, immediately after a failed Hitmen power play, Pats captain Garrett Mitchell came out of the box, picked up a loose puck in the neutral zone, and scored on a breakaway. 2-0 Regina. Dammit. Towards the end of the period, Hitmen defender Spencer Humphries laid a hellacious but clean hit on Spencer Neigum, the Pats’ penalty-minute leader by a mile at 155 on the year. Needless to say, we saw our first scrap of the day, and it was a beauty, going on for well over a minute with both guys throwing ‘em like they meant it. Neigum was slapped with an instigator, and the Hitmen had another power play. Less than a minute in, defenceman Jaynen Rissling pinched into the high slot and slapped home a Trevor Cheek pass to bring the game to within one after 40 minutes.

In the third period, the Sun finally broke free of the clouds it had been hiding behind and lit up the north side of the rink. It was a bit like the Heritage Classic in reverse: dim skies under the lights replaced by a bright, sunny sky to finish the day. The Hitmen carried the momentum into the third period, with Minnesota Wild prospect Kris Foucault scoring his 20th partway through the period to tie the game at two. The pace continued throughout the period, with physical play picking up and several net-front scrums ensuing. As the period drew to a close, overtime appeared to be in the offing, but it was not to be: with just 36.5 seconds left, Regina’s Chandler Stephenson scored his sixth of the year to make it 3-2. While the Hitmen made a valiant effort with the net empty, the game ended in a futile twelve-man battle in the low slot. Final score: Regina Pats 3, Calgary Hitmen 2. The record-breaking 20,888-strong crowd filed out, the vast majority of them Hitmen fans dejected at the last-second loss.

After the game, we returned to the merchandise tent. We initially left empty-handed, but I decided I really wanted a Habs Heritage Classic hoodie, so I ran back. None in my size. That should’ve been the end, but I got a couple of T-shirts instead – and an instant case of buyer’s remorse, as I saw that there were still Habs Heritage Classic jerseys available. I initially resisted, but then ran back again, only to find that the jerseys had been packed away. I left disappointed, but on the walk back to the van began to wonder why I was really disappointed. We had seen a lot of people in that tent in the minutes after the final horn; were we all just there to get some last-second deals, or were we really trying to feel less bummed-out by buying more neat stuff? More specifically, was I really upset about missing out on that jersey, or the way the game had ended?

In the end, I realized on the drive home that I needed to be more appreciative of the things I already had, and the things that I had already gotten out of the weekend. I already own 23 hockey jerseys, five of them Canadiens jerseys, more than any other team. In terms of “stuff” from the weekend, I cleaned up: T-shirts, a hoodie, a travel mug, a lanyard with my ticket in it, bags, programs, and various signed merchandise. But the most important thing I got out of the weekend was memories. Meeting people I’d spent years talking to online, getting a Habs jersey signed by two of the greatest players in franchise history – and interacting with two of the friendliest and most accommodating people in the sport – and spending the weekend with family and friends, enjoying the quality time together because of the game of hockey. That, ultimately, is what the Family Day weekend is all about, and that’s exactly what the Heritage Classic delivered. How could I possibly ask for more?

About Doug Stolhand 26905 Articles
Doug Stolhand is one of the co-founders and co-hosts of the Puck Podcast and has been a member of the NHL media since the show's inception in 2006.

6 Comments

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