Off the Top of My Head: Remembering the Heritage Classic, Mike Stelter’s battle, and more

Photo credit:Robin Brownlee
Robin Brownlee
6 months ago
It’s been 20 years since NHL hockey outdoors came to Edmonton the first time, but with the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames meeting in the 2023 edition of the Heritage Classic next Sunday, many of the memories from the day the Montreal Canadiens beat the Oilers 4-3 in front of 57,167 fans remain vivid.
First, the temperature. While the mercury is expected to hover a degree or two within zero when the Oilers and Flames drop the puck, the temperature at game time in 2003 dipped as low as -30 C with the windchill during a cold snap. Whether you were perched in the seats or were out and about and around the rink as I was, it was cold as hell.
The day before the main game, I remember standing at the bench with the old timers – the MegaStars — at practice. Wayne Gretzky, like the other old greats, was bundled up like kids you see out for a frosty twirl. The Great One was cloaked in extra layers, had a towel around his neck and wore a tuque pulled low over his ears. Out on the rink, Glen Sather looked less than comfortable leaning on the boards and running practice.
As for game day, I remember how the glass was frosted by the bitter cold when the puck was dropped between the Habs and the Oilers. Temperatures that afternoon also produced that timeless shot of Montreal stopper Jose Theodore with a tuque pulled over his mask and his breath frozen around him.
Almost as memorable as the spectacle of the game itself was the moment a streaker – it turns out he was a welder from Fort St. John – doffed his duds, ran toward the rink and had security chasing him until he lost his footing and wiped out bare-assed in the sack-biting cold in front of a hooting and hollering crowd. Sure.


Photo: Robin Brownlee
The forecast temperatures will be a lot more tolerable this time around. The rink, from the glass and boards to the several tons of ice-making equipment that has been trucked in, is worlds ahead of what ice-maker Dan Craig and his crew had to make do with 20 years ago. 
I’ll miss having the oldtimers game as part of the show, although there’ll be a tribute involving players from the 2003 game during the first intermission — the likes of Jason Chimera, Aleš Hemsky, Charlie Huddy, Georges Laraque and Fernando Pisani. Players like Guy Lafleur and Dave Semenko from the 2003 oldtimers game are gone now. So too, the great Red Fisher, who was in the press box sipping Chivas that afternoon. I miss them.
Of course, there’s the Battle of Alberta component to this game with two points that both teams want on the line. The Oilers are coming off a 3-2 overtime loss to Winnipeg Jets Saturday after inspiring coach Jay Woodcroft to drop that F-bomb after no-showing in a 4-1 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers on the road Thursday. 
While the novelty of outdoor games long ago wore off for me, there are new generations of fans who weren’t even born the last time this game was played here. They’ve never seen a spectacle like this in person and that makes it a pretty cool event.


Photo: Mike Stelter
It’s almost impossible to comprehend that since losing son Ben to brain cancer at age six in August 2022 after his little boy grabbed this city by the heartstrings, father Mike Stelter is now in a cancer battle of his own.
We got a reminder of that during the intermission of the Oilers 4-1 loss in Philadelphia Thursday as Mike and Lea Stelter made a brief appearance with Gene Principe of Sportsnet. Mike told me in late September he’d be taking two months of treatment in Philadelphia and he’s about halfway through those now.
I’m not going to lean on the cliché of saying how circumstances like these provide perspective. With what this family – Mike, Lea and daughters Dylan and Emmy — has already endured, everybody is acutely aware how hockey, no matter how it stirs our passions, is just a game. This is life. What a cruel reminder of the difference this is. 
AND . . . then, there’s this clip of unsigned free agent Jesse Puljujarvi working out again after his latest hip surgery courtesy of Finnish journalist Jouni Nieminen. Looks like Puljujarvi is on his way to getting back into the NHL. It won’t happen with the Oilers, but it would be nice to see him get another shot somewhere.

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