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Anniversaries VII: Heritage Classic --Saturday

Five years ago this weekend Edmonton hosted the NHL’s first outdoor game. This lifelong fan was one of 57,167 people in attendance that day, but my experiences over thathockey weekend were in some ways entirely unique. I think it’s a story worth (re)telling. Part 2 of 2 follows.

Saturday, November 22, 2003. I had really wanted to go to the Heritage Classic from the day it was announced. An historic occasion for a self-styled hockey historian who has already experienced first-hand more than his share. Yet all fall I had done nothing about it, not even entering the lottery as the ticket requests piled into the Oilers' office by the hundreds of thousands. I can't really afford it, I rationalized, but maybe something will just fall into my lap. Somehow I remained sanguine, strangely confident that somehow it would work out. When Val told me about the CBC contest to win free tickets, I just knew I would win -- and typically I'm a "glass-half-empty" type when it comes to foretelling the future. Even when I was down to the equivalent of pulling my goalie in the trivia game, I maintained my composure. I felt that the contest was for people just like me: the hockey-is-in-my-blood fans who could say "Thanks for the memories" and actually remember. So I felt I deserved to win those tickets and somehow justice would prevail. Of course, my end of the bargain would be to share my experience with those who might share my passion if not my luck on this occasion.

Came the day, and I awoke with said tickets having miraculously materialized only hours earlier. Game day temperature hovered between -16 and -20° C., with a "freshening" breeze from the SE. The promise of a warm-and-fuzzy experience was sure to be challenged on at least one front. Specifically, a cold front. But in a way I welcomed the cold as a factor which would make the occasion more memorable, an Outdoors-in-Canadian-Winter experience.

While the Oilers first NHL game -- whose ticket stub paved the way to this one -- was held on my birthday, the Heritage Classic itself was held on my wife's. (Some would call this a sign.) Unselfish person and loving mother that she is -- not to mention practical about the Great Outdoors in Friggin' November -- she graciously passed on her opportunity so that our son could attend, and spent "her" day mostly alone. She had seen hundreds of games with me in the glory years, and was happy to remember "the boys" as they were. Kevin, meanwhile, had heard the stories (more than once, in some cases) but never saw the team with his own eyes, the Gretzky sale having been completed in his first year.

Kevin and I prepared like tens of thousands of others for an extended outdoor stint. With my cold-weather night-time observing experience and collected layers of clothing, perhaps I was better prepared than many: briefs, thermal socks, two pairs wool socks, two full pairs of longjohns, outer pants, turtleneck, two hoodies, snowmobile suit, Oiler sweater, parka, Sorel boots, wool gloves covered by heavy wool gunner mitts, neck warmer, thick black cloth baseball hat, four hoods, sleeping bag. A thermos of hot coffee for me and of cider for Kevin, and off we trundled like a pair of Michelin Men to the Park'N'Ride. After a few nervous moments outside the stadium seeing a huge line-up awaiting security, I found that they were passing people through very efficiently indeed, and we were able to find out seats just as they began to introduce the so-called megastars. Perfect timing.

Commonwealth Stadium was the place to be that cold November Saturday, providing an interesting perspective on a few things. Seen at a greater distance than I'm used to -- and make no mistake, these were relatively excellent seats on Row 44, just below the underhang -- the games had a surreal element. I saw it as an event, whereas usually my attention is entirely focussed on the action between the boards.

What an event it was! It had a very Winter Carnival-type feel. I have been to many dozens of games in Commonwealth Stadium, starting with the Games themselves, but I have never, ever been there in the winter. Do we really just leave it sit there unused for half the year?

The experience of watching the timeworn rituals of hockey in the familiar-yet-strange setting of Commonwealth Stadium was like a dream, where context twisted into bizarre visions of unreality. The usual green floor of Commonwealth was replaced by a broad valley of brilliantly-lit white; an island ice rink surrounded by a lake of snow. While utterly appropriate to the occasion of the first outdoor game, the "lake" seemed to act as a buffer between the fans and the participants; seen at an odd, flattish angle the ice surface was seemingly suspended in space, the standard setting of spectators in surround-sound seats strangely sequestered. And my normally sharp sense of time was skewed in mysterious ways, as the utterly modern merged with the ageless.

The challenges of playing outdoors were as old as the game itself, yet utterly new to most of the participants. While a record audience of nearly 3 million viewers watched innovative camera angles on Hockey Night in Canada's first high-definition TV broadcast, to us in the distant stands the action was difficult to follow, the puck the size of a pixel when it was visible at all. One learned to follow it by the context of the play and the players; if, for example, Eric Brewer was skating in a certain direction, one could be sure the puck was going in another.

But all that said, the stands were the place to be, where one could observe the action unfolding live in something close to four dimensions, no matter how strangely warped. From that perspective one could focus less on the hockey game and reflect on Hockey, the Game. Or as Peter Gzowski put it, the Game of Our Lives. The patterns, the passing, the pounding, the poise-under-pressure, the performance art, the passion play.

In many ways the fans were the big story. Layered up as we were, we wedged ourselves together like rowsful of Dave Hunters. Not everybody stuck it out for the whole six hours, but a significant majority did. It was a wonderful celebration of the game of hockey, and simply of being Canadian. One just had to listen to the 57,000-voice Commonwealth Stadium Choir's heartfelt rendition of "O Canada" to recognize that. Normally a reluctant participant in flag-waving and territory-marking, I was surprised to hear my own voice rising to join the throng.

Back to the surreal: the legends game in particular had a dream-like quality, with the perception of both time and space seemingly distorted. For one thing it was a low-scoring game, hardly an Oiler trademark. For all that I had seen the core of the 80s Oilers play some 500 live games, they appeared for this one in their unfamiliar road blues. The Canadiens were wearing a weird sort of photonegative of the famed bleu, blanc, et rouge which made number identification almost impossible. I could see on the big screen suspended on a giant crane at the south end, that the sweaters sported the familiar "CH" (for "Classique Heritage"?).

But with due respect to the greatest franchise in the NHL's long history, it was not the Habs most of us had gone to see. Too many of les anciens glorieux are unfortunately a little more anciens than glorieux. They dominated the league for decades by passing the torch from one generation to the next. Many of the greats have long since died, some famously during their playing days (Georges Vézina, Howie Morenz), some famously in retirement (Rocket Richard), others in obscurity (Doug Harvey, Toe Blake). The majority of living greats are simply too old to participate in an event like this. Their last great team was a quarter century ago, a fully mature group of stars mostly in their 30s at a time that Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier were hitting the pro ranks in the World Hockey Association at the tender age of 17. Unlike the Habs, the Oilers developed all of their great players almost simultaneously, with the entire core of stars being within a couple of years in age. Today, this meant in their young 40s, far younger than almost all of Montreal's legends.

The view of my old favourites was refracted by the prism of time which had eroded their skills today, but which shone in my mind like yesterday. I couldn't read their numbers easily either, but had no trouble identifying any of them through posture, skating stride, mannerisms. I'm sure I could identify Lee Fogolin coming off the bench during a stoppage at 1000 yards: the stooped shoulders and laboured but purposeful stride are still unmistakable.

Familiar plays and patterns occasionally emerged, albeit in slow motion as hard-won muscle memory fought aging legs and a puck in serious need of retraining. For every change on the fly, there was the new Oilers' right defenceman trying to hustle across to his side of the ice to defend against yet another odd-man rush; and boy, do I remember nights like that. No mistaking Paul Coffey making the big turn at his own blueline, his powerful cross-over strides morphing from backwards to lateral to full-steam-ahead, taking a pass in full stride, blasting though the neutral zone and wide on the overmatched defenceman before making a backhand centring pass which barely failed; the puck turned over but Coffey had already used his considerable momentum to round the net and glide effortlessly back into defensive position. Obviously that was Wayne Gretzky hunching over the puck for the exactly correct number of milliseconds before (trying to) unselfishly dishing it off to the man in the best position. Only Glenn Anderson could lean at that impossible angle, defying the laws of gravity while taking the puck on the shortest path to the goalmouth. That had to be Charlie Huddy making a shrewd neutral zone pinch, causing a turnover and taking advantage of his position and momentum to lumber along the right boards as the fourth man on the rush, take another pass, dish it off, duck back to the point. There was Randy Gregg, tall and poised, making a crisp breakout pass; and there was Kevin Lowe, tall and poised, making another. To some they may have looked as similar as two tall pine trees, but to me who has seen each of them make the same play literally thousands of times, they were as unique as my own brothers.

While many "experts" in the (eastern) media viewed Mark Messier's participation as frivolous or worse, fact is Oilers would have been incomplete without the presence of perhaps their most dominant personality. So what if he was still an active player? To me it was the night-in night-out grind with the Rangers at the age of 42 that's the anomaly, not playing with his old buddies who have played out the string in a more conventional time frame. And for an original WHA fan like myself, in Oiler silks Messier embodied the only surviving remnants of the old league; by 2003 the Edmonton native was the only active NHL player who played in the WHA, and the Oilers its only remaining team.

There were of course, several retirees in the game who played in the WHA: Gretzky, Semenko, Chipperfield, Hunter, Linseman, Gingras, Napier, to name a few. But as usual, the Oilers chose to bury that part of their history without a trace. I don't understand it.

As for the Habs, they played hard, and they played well. But beyond Lafleur, Robinson, Lapointe, and Shutt, many of the big names were missing: no Gainey, no Cournoyer, no Savard, no Dryden, to name a few stalwarts of the last great Habs team of the late 1970s. The roster was sprinkled with Stanley Cup champions from the "fluke" Cups of 1986 and '93, good teams with great goaltending. The masked face of that team, Patrick Roy, was nowhere to be seen, but there was no shortage of solid but uncompelling skaters like Carbonneau, Muller, Ludwig, Pepé Lemieux. The Habs did what those Habs always did, play positional hockey to close down space and time on the puck carrier. Not exactly the "firewagon hockey" for which the Habs once were revered, more like the "starve the fire before it catches hockey" of the modern NHL. So in a way they were the exact wrong opponent to let the Oilers put on a show. Time after time a still-imaginative Oiler passing play would die just before the finishing shot.

The view of the ice was further distorted by shimmering haloes of exhaled air around the players' heads, nature's elements in an unnaturally natural setting. Occasionally the puck would crack against the boards in a distinctly outdoors sort of way, and one had to remind oneself that these were some of the greatest athletes this city, this country, this game has ever seen, playing shinny on a cold Saturday afternoon in November. They were having a ball, and so were we in the stands. To see them pick up the ice scrapers between periods teleported me to the neighbourhood rink with my seven-year-old son, or as a seven-year-old myself, holding the handle of the shovel under my chin, trying to keep up with my brothers in the crisp air of Tipton Park. No doubt other minds wandered to more distant eras and lakes and rivers of a truly timeless, Canadian pastime.

A personal highlight was attending with my son. Kevin loved to play the game but is ambivalent about watching it. It might be the fastest team sport in the world, but it's positively glacial compared to video games. And my teenager's usual response rate is about one grunt per four questions asked. But midway through the megastars game, right out of the clear cold blue, Kevin volunteered "This is just great!" And beamed as only he can, right through the neck warmer.

A few other snapshots from the day's activities will stand the test of time. As an erstwhile goalie, I will cherish a couple provided by the custodians of the cord cottage. One was a remarkable period of shutout hockey provided by the recent Hockey Hall of Fame inductee Grant Fuhr, capped by a lightning quick glove grab of a rocket off the still-formidable stick of Stephane Richer. The replay on the big screen was perhaps the day's defining moment for TV viewers: the modern net cam view of Fuhr in classic hockey card pose, silhouetted against a crisp blue sky. The other was Jose Théodore's toque, a practical fashion statement which for this hockey fan made yet another link across time. In 2002 Théodore became the second Habs' goalie to win the Hart Trophy. The first, 40 years earlier in the season before I started to watch hockey, was noted worrywart Jacques Plante, who famously used to knit toques as a stress reliever. Legend does not relate whether he actually wore one in an NHL game, but on this special day his spirit lived on.

The regular "league game" was something of an anti-climax to the megastars, because in many respects it was just another game. Historic, to be sure, and interesting to watch the players deal with the challenges, but I found I had to work rather harder than usual to follow the game at the intellectual level. Two points were on the line, but who won or lost was ultimately unimportant. A lesson which I am still learning at this advanced stage of my life.

Was it perfect? Certainly not. The utter lack of crowd control made the concourse a seething (in more ways than one) mass of humanity, where the destination eventually became a not-so-simple return to one's seat, leaving one to contemplate alternative uses of an empty thermos. The main game could have been better, and had a happier outcome for the frozen faithful. The Oilers megastars could have won 7-5, not 2-0. Jaroslav Pouzar could have been there. Don Cherry could have been booed off the field, or at least greeted with stony silence. (Some dreams remain forever beyond reach.)

And there were omissions. If they'd put me in charge, I would have added a final touch: to announce the home town in the introduction of every player and in both games, from Edmonton to Espoo, St. John's to St. Petersburg. This would have served as eloquent testimony that the Game of Our Lives is proudly Canadian in origin but now stretches 'round the globe at those latitudes where ice forms naturally.

The dreamlike state in which I experienced this event was entirely appropriate. In earlier, happier days, it had been the dream of a lifetime for a die-hard hockey fan to witness first-hand such a team as the 1980s Edmonton Oilers, without doubt the most exciting team in NHL history, featuring the greatest genius to ever play the game. To have this one last chance to see them make history yet again was for me, what the chance to play together may have been for them.