Edmonton is intimately familiar with hockey in the great outdoors — almost every neighbourhood has a rink, and the Oilers were the first National Hockey League team to host an outdoor game — but bringing the Heritage Classic back 20 years later will be special in many ways, say the league and its best player.
“It’s just so different. When are (players) going to get a chance to play in a stadium like this or in stadiums all across Canada and the States?” Oilers superstar Connor McDavid said rhetorically during a media availability Wednesday at Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium, site of an Oct. 29 clash between his team and the archrival Calgary Flames.
Edmonton hosted the inaugural Heritage Classic on a frigid Saturday in late November 2003, a double-bill affair. First, alumni squads of both the Oilers and Montreal Canadiens took the ice in front of 60,000 fans, followed by the regular lineups of the day.
The sellout event set the stage for regular outdoor games a little more than four years later, when the Pittsburgh Penguins played the host Buffalo Sabres to great fanfare.
The NHL hasn’t looked back and has staged as many as four outdoor games — termed Winter Classics and Stadium Series events in the U.S., Heritage Classics in Canada — in one season.
Every year, the league tries to improve upon the experience.
“We have to take this to a whole other level … Our goal on every single stoppage (of play is) something goes on in the stadium,” Steve Mayer, the NHL’s chief content officer and executive producer of this year’s Heritage Classic, said Wednesday. “You want the fans to have an experience that they’ll never forget … You’re buying a ticket to an experience. It’s got to be a bucket-list game for a lot of people, so you want to make it one of the great experiences they’re ever going to have at a sporting event.”
McDavid said the idea of playing outdoors — and in different locales — appeals greatly to NHL players.
“The NHL’s brought some outdoor games to some pretty wild places,” said McDavid, a three-time NHL most-valuable player who’s led the league in scoring in five of the eight seasons he’s played. “I think of the Lake Tahoe game (in 2021). I think of ones in California. Who would’ve pictured playing outdoors in California? It’s an event players look forward to. I think fans look forward to it as well … It’s something you don’t see every day and I don’t think any sport can replicate it like we can, so it’s fun to be a part of it.”
Tickets for the Heritage Classic are still available. The NHL will release more tickets via Ticketmaster on Thursday at 1 p.m.
“It’s evolved,” Mayer said. “We’ve learned a lot over the years. We have a mantra at the league to make the next one bigger and better than the last one. We think we’ve made them very unique and different.”