'Classic' exposes the roots of the game


EDMONTON, Alberta -- Legions of hockey fans in South Florida probably couldn't care less that the National Hockey League and the Edmonton Oilers are bringing the game outside on Saturday.

That might well be the case in Anaheim, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Tampa, Atlanta, and Raleigh and maybe even Washington, D.C., too.

After all, if you didn't grow up in a climate where the cold clawed at your fingers and toes, the wind slapped your face and you had to shovel snow -- not only to get to your favorite place to play but also to clear snow off of it when you got there -- you likely have no fond memories of playing hockey in the great outdoors.

They have them in Canada, however. They also have them along the shores of Great Lakes cities like Buffalo, Detroit and Chicago. The feeling is well known in Minnesota, land of a thousand lakes and a hundred thousand players, and in parts of New England. You even get a sense that it touches a nerve, albeit a less sensitive one, in Pittsburgh and maybe even Columbus, St. Louis and Denver.

Both Edmonton and the NHL are hoping to tap into those feelings this weekend with an old timers game that features the legendary Wayne Gretzky and a regular-season NHL game between the Oilers and the Montreal Canadiens.

Assuming weather does not become a canceling factor -- the temperature was minus 5 (20 Celsius) in Edmonton on Thursday evening with about three inches of snow on the ground -- the game will be the first NHL game played out doors since the advent of artificial ice.

Edmonton is one of those places that knows a cold day. The people here, across Canada and through the Great Lakes cities are people who know the value, even the necessity, of wearing gloves within hockey gloves, the wisdom of having an extra pair of socks and a vest underneath their sweaters. They also have the good sense not to turn into the wind when spitting on the fly.

"It's our heritage, it's a part of who we are and how we grew up," said Gretzky, the former Edmonton Oilers captain who as a child was the beneficiary of the motherly wisdom of placing hot food inside your skates just to keep the boot warm during the long walk to the rink.

Gretzky now makes both his home and living in the United States, and as managing partner of the Phoenix Coyotes, he rarely deals with anything colder than air conditioning. It might well be that a baked potato in his skate boot is little more than a memory from a long time ago, but the Great One opted to play in this game a) because he was asked by both friends and family and b) because it tugged in no small way at his heart.

Arguably the greatest hockey player to ever play the game, Gretzky committed to playing in the old-timers portion of what is being billed as hockey's Heritage Classic. He readily embraced the concept of an outdoor game in what is often the coldest and certainly the most remote city on the NHL for a variety of reasons. He said he wanted an opportunity for his children and many of his friends who never saw him in an Edmonton Oilers uniform to see him play here. It was in Edmonton where he launched his stunning NHL career, but he left long before his children were born.

He said he wanted to play because the unique circumstances of an outdoor game -- to be played in Edmonton's Commonwealth Stadium in front of at least 56,169 (the stated seating capacity) -- would likely be an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. He said he wanted to play because it was a chance to reunite, perhaps for the only time in his life, with lifelong friends who won Stanley Cups together and put Edmonton on the sporting map. The place that so defined his life that he is seldom thought of as anything but an Oiler, despite having played in Los Angeles, St. Louis and New York.

We suspect, however, there are other reasons.

There is something disturbingly different about the sports we grew up with and the sports we see today. There isn't enough space, even on the Internet, to detail them all, but suffice to say that many of us still cling to memories of sport as a defining force in regard to who we are and who, or what, we had always hoped to become.

Those memories have certainly dimmed over time, tarnished by the relentless reality of a sporting world that long ago abandoned the concept of fun and games and embraced a world of money, agents, attitude and even indifference.

Still, many of us still cling to that faded connection to our youth. We cling to a time -- even if it was nothing more than a perception of a time -- when team was more important than money, when friendship was more meaningful than goals, assists or points, when winning wasn't all that much more fun than losing as long as it was a well-played game and you knew you had given your best.

Somehow, this outdoor game -- an event that essentially is little more than a cash opportunity for the Oilers and a promotional opportunity for a league in near desperate need of an image makeover -- has managed to forge a connection back to that time.

The attraction is supposed to be today's Oilers playing today's Montreal Canadiens in an outdoor game that actually counts for points in the standings, but it has become much more than that.

Organizers maintain they've had requests for over 700,000 tickets. Players, some of whom are still playing in the NHL, have expressed a desire to be here. Some, like New York Rangers captain Mark Messier, a native of Edmonton and a former Oilers captain, even want to play here.

For many, just being here has become a cause unto itself. Fans are descending on Edmonton as if it were a city worthy of pilgrimage. Seeing Gretzky, the old Oilers and the even older Montreal Canadiens would be nice, seeing the current version of the teams would be twice as nice, but just being here seems to be the most important thing.

Canadiens from the big cities on the coasts to the prairie towns in between have seemingly been smitten by this event. Even without tickets, they are pouring into Edmonton in record numbers, filling the hotels, the restaurants and the bars. Americans are coming, too. There's a U.S. fan presence here, but also a media presence here that goes well beyond anything seen for a regular-season NHL game and even further for international hockey tournaments that Canadians embrace but Americans, and especially American media, routinely ignore.

They are here for two games, one that means next to nothing in terms of money or prestige or even a place in the standings, another that counts for just two points in a season that regularly requires 80 or more just to garner a seat at the playoff table.

"I had wrist surgery scheduled, but I put it off because I wanted to be a part of this," said former Montreal great Larry Robinson, a Hall of Fame defenseman who makes his home in Florida.

"I think I'm the only guy on either roster who played for both teams," noted Mark Napier, a right winger who won a Stanley Cup with the Canadiens in 1979 and another with the Oilers in 1985. Napier will dress for the Canadiens.

For older players, coming home to Canada and playing outdoors, gives them a sense of being young again, of reconnecting to something they long ago left behind but never removed from their hearts.

Even the idea of the wind, the cold, and now a steady snow that has blanketed Edmonton doesn't deter them.

"The old guys don't want to play in the snow," said Kevin Lowe a former All-Star defenseman for the Oilers and currently the team's general manager. "I do. I think it will just add to the mystique of the whole thing."

The league and some of the current players might have a different point of view if the weather becomes too big a factor in the official game that follows, but no one else here seems to mind.

After all, sometimes it snows while you're playing hockey outside.

Jim Kelley is the NHL writer for ESPN.com. Submit questions or comments to his mail bag.