The original Heritage Classic in 2003 will forever be the gold standard for outdoor NHL games, in my opinion, the 2016 event was pretty close. From the moment Elliotte Friedman broke the news on twitter on February 13 that Winnipeg would host an outdoor game in 2016-17 and Edmonton would be the opponent, I knew there was no way I was going to miss it.
About a month later, “The Great One” Wayne Gretzky announced that he was going to play for the Edmonton Oilers alumni against the Winnipeg Jets alumni prior to the regular-season game. As a lifelong Gretzky fan who never had the chance to see him play live during his legendary career, the Heritage Classic then became a once in a lifetime type event for me. I thought watching him on TV in 2003 alumni game would be the closest I would ever get to seeing him suit up in an Oilers jersey. I’m glad I was wrong. And 251 days after the event was announced, I flew to Winnipeg for the 2016 Heritage Classic.
I got to the Investors Groups Field on Saturday with one of my best friend’s Chris, who is a huge Jets fan, about an hour before the game. Just standing in line to get in the stadium, you could feel how excited all the fans were for the alumni game. Many of people my age or younger who never got to see likes of Wayne Gretzky or Dale Hawerchuk in their prime were grinning from ear-to-ear over seeing these legends take to the ice.
Once we got to our seats the atmosphere got even better. Thankfully for me, there was a good amount of Oilers fans in my section (I’ll guess around 15% of the fans were wearing orange and blue), though I never got chirped by one Jets fan the entire weekend. Tons of class by the fans in Winnipeg.
My friend warned me that Gretzky and the rest of the Oilers legends might get booed out of building after defeating the Jets in five playoff series between 1984 and 1990. However, that was not the case. In fact, Gretzky got the third loudest ovation after Hawerchuk and Teemu Selanne. Another great show of class.
The place erupted when fan-favourite Selanne scored on a penalty shot goal early in the game and seemed to louder with each goal they scored as the Jets jumped out to a 4-1 lead in the first period. The Oilers alumni quieted the Winnipeg fans with four straight goals in the second and third periods to take a 5-4 lead. But unfortunately for Oilers fans, the Jets alumni tied the game up late in the final frame and Selanne provided the dagger with another penalty shot goal with 3.6 seconds remaining in regulation to secure the victory for the home team.
Gretzky admittedly said, “I stink”in the post-game presser after going scoreless in the 6-5 loss, but it didn’t matter to me that. Sure, it would be great to see Gretzky score a beautiful goal or set up Jari Kurri from the behind the net for a tally, but what made it special for me was just to see my hero play live for the first time. That said, Mark Messier and Paul Coffey look like they could play. And the recently retired Ryan Smyth (my other childhood hero who I’ve been lucky enough to see play many times) was the speedster for the Oilers alumni!
Going into the day, I thought I would be upset if the Oilers lost, but I wasn’t. I can honestly say that was one of the best days of my life. Also, I tweeted out the picture you see above and it made up on the scoreboard at Investors Group Field. So that was another cool part of the day.
I’ll be the first to admit I was more excited for the alumni game than the actual regular-season game, but when I got back to the stadium on Sunday the intensity picked up. Now, two points were on the line. After a two hour delay due to sunlight (who would have thought?) the tarps finally came off the ice and we were ready to go.
The pre-game ceremony was excellent with Gretzky and Hawerchuk coming out to drop the pucks alongside Connor McDavid and Blake Wheeler. It was a brilliant way to blend the past, present, and future of these two hockey clubs. Obviously, the Oilers pulled out the win thanks to three quick goals in the second period that sucked the life out of the building for Jets fans, but I probably cheered louder than I have since the Oilers run to the Stanley Cup in 2006. It felt like a playoff game, or even like the Grey Cup since it was played in a CFL stadium. All in all, it was a great weekend of hockey for the 33,000-plus fans who can say they were there.
My original plan was to fly home to Saskatoon on Sunday night after the game, but all the flights were fully booked so I had to catch the red-eye home Monday morning. Little did I know that this would make my trip to Winnipeg even better. While I was standing with my friend in a gift shop at the airport I saw a familiar face walk by. At first, I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me at 5:30 AM, but I walked over just to be sure. It was former Oilers goalie and playoff hero Dwayne Roloson, who was the best of Edmonton’s three goalies in the alumni game. He was gracious enough with his time to give me a couple minutes to talk hockey with him and take a photo. I’ve never been so happy to miss my original flight home before. Hopefully, many of you reading this had the chance to attend the Heritage Classic as well. And if not, you will likely get another a chance in the future. With McDavid on
Hopefully, many of you reading this had the chance to attend the Heritage Classic as well. And if not, you will likely get another a chance in the future. With McDavid on team, the Oilers are bound to have more opportunities like this going forward. Although Gretzky mentioned that if there is another alumni game in the future, he likely won’t be a part of it. If this is true, I’m so thankful that I was in attendance for his last game. 50 years from now, that will be what I remember most about this weekend.