Remembering the 2003 Heritage Classic, the outdoor game that started it all

Cam Lewis
7 months ago
For the first time in 20 years, the NHL is back at Commonwealth Stadium. It’s expected to be a little warmer this time around.
On November 22, 2003, the Edmonton Oilers hosted the Montreal Canadiens for the Heritage Classic, an event that featured a MegaStars exhibition with legends from the past along with the first-ever regular season NHL game played outdoors. Temperatures dipped to −18 °C, −30 °C with the windchill, but 57,167 fans braved the cold to be a part of history.
Oilers and Habs legends such as Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, and Guy LaFleur suited up in a game that Edmonton won by a score of 2-0. After the game, Messier jokingly referred to it as “a typical Oilers win,” which was a reference to the typical high-scoring game the team had during their 1980s dynasty days.

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After that, the current Oilers and Habs squads took the ice for an actual NHL regular season game. The league had previously done exhibition games outdoors, including the Boston Bruins playing a series of senior teams in the Maritimes and the L.A. Kings and New York Rangers playing a game in the parking lot of Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, but this was the first one that counted towards the standings.
The Oilers took the ice wearing throwback jerseys, Canadiens goaltender Jose Theodore wore a toque over his helmet, and players on both teams were bundled up to navigate the cold. After a scoreless first frame, Montreal finally opened the scoring early in the second. The two teams went back and forth and the Habs ultimately edged out a 4-3 victory.

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The event was a smashing success. The MegaStars game allowed the Oilers to honour legendary players from the past and the regular season match offered the intensity that previous outdoor exhibitions didn’t have. The temperature was brutal but the aesthetic of hockey being played on a frozen pond at Commonwealth Stadium was unique and beautiful.
After the game, Oilers general manager Kevin Lowe said that he felt that outdoor games could become a staple part of the NHL calendar. He wasn’t sure if Edmonton would host another one, but suggested that doing so in October would offer better weather.
“I haven’t talked to the league to see if they’re satisfied — I’m sure they would have been,” Lowe said. “I can foresee this being a great event in a lot of NHL cities to celebrate hockey, to celebrate your city and the game.
“We hadn’t planned before the event (to do it again), we were just thinking of it as a one-time thing. But if we did do it again, we’d probably consider October.”
Lowe’s vision was correct. Since the 2003 Heritage Classic, playing outdoors has become a regular thing in the NHL. There have been games at iconic stadiums, such as Wrigley Field in Chicago, Fenway Park in Boston, Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, and in non-NHL markets, including Saskatoon and Lake Tahoe.

Edmonton Journal Newspaper Clipping From Sunday, November 23, 2003.

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