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Alberta's Northern Classic

Fort McMurray sets the stage for the Heritage Classic

Saturday, 04.12.2010 / 1:20 PM / News
By Mike Board  - CF.com Digital Content Director
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Alberta\'s Northern Classic

A frozen lake. A bumpy slough. Snow shovels. Sticks in the middle to pick teams. The search for a puck when it left the playing surface and disappeared into a snow bank. If you are Canadian, you know what we are talking about here. On frozen pond. Where we pretended to be our favourite player and score the winning goal in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup.

The outdoor hockey game. Fresh air, your breath hanging in the icy air. What could be better?

In 2003 the NHL, the Edmonton Oilers and Montreal Canadiens made history, hosting the first outdoor NHL game in the modern era in front of 60,000 people at Commonwealth Stadium. The NHL so-liked the concept that it was revived and now is an annual event with games having been staged in Buffalo, Chicago and Boston with this year's Winter Classic in Pittsburgh on New Year's Day.

Fort McMurray players salute a crowd of 6,000 at the Northern Classic

And, as we all know, the Heritage Classic returns to Alberta February 20th when the Flames host the Canadiens at McMahon Stadium. The Calgary Hitmen will play a day later on the outdoor rink at McMahon. And the Spokane Chiefs of the WHL will host an outdoor game this season.

The outdoor game is back in fashion, to be certain.

I recently had the pleasure of attending a history-making outdoor game in Fort McMurray put on by the Alberta Junior Hockey League's Fort McMurray Oil Barons. Officially, the Northern Classic, staged on MacDonald Island in the heart of the oil sands city, was the first junior hockey game to played outdoors and, with a standing room only crowd of 5,726 the Oil Barons and Drayton Valley Thunder shattered the previous AJHL attendance record of 4,400.

Now, you are probably wondering what on earth a guy would be doing traveling 400 kilometers north of Edmonton to watch a hockey game on the edge of the boreal forest. Answer: My son, Mitchell, plays for the Oil Barons. The whole family, including a somewhat reluctant younger brother, Zachary, made the trip to Fort McMurray for the game as did many of the players' parents and families. A once-in-a-lifetime experience, the event did not disappoint.

The frigid weather that had hit Alberta just a week prior broke. At game time it was about minus 6 Celsius. Nothing warm clothing and the odd sip of whiskey couldn't cure. An absolutely packed stadium. And a stadium full of civic pride. Volunteers put the game together. Corporations and the City of Fort McMurray jumped on board to support the Northern Classic -- estimated cost north of $800,000, not chump change in the junior hockey ranks.

There were gala dinners and fund-raisers. Minor hockey players skated on the outdoor ice, neatly nurtured by NHL ice guru Dan Craig.

We arrived the night before the game and Mitchell took us to the Northern Classic rink. It was empty. The lights were on. Frost filled the glass around the ice surface. We stood there in silence for a moment, taking in the site.

"So, are you excited," my wife asked Mitchell.

"Oh yeah. This is all pretty cool," he responded.

The league, teams and Hockey Canada also did something cool for the game: They allowed the teams to dress their full roster contingents of 25 players so that nobody would have to be scratched.(The Oil Barons had some injuries so they called up an affiliate from midget for the experience).

Mitchell Board, the author's son, in action at the Northern Classic

At a ceremony earlier the evening prior to the game, Mitchell and his teammates had been presented their vintage jerseys for the game at a special ceremony hosted by TSN's Jay Onrait and Dan O'Toole who would serve as hosts throughout the weekend. I immediately noted that Mitchell would have to forfeit the vintage jersey to his parents. You know, for all the early morning practices, the skates and sticks we had bought. He just smiled as if to say 'That ain't happening'.

The next day, to our surprise, the Oil Barons presented each family with one of those very jerseys. A very special commemorative gift. Truth be told, like the Northern Classic it staged, the organization is first class all the way.

As game time approached and the bands played on the big stage, the stands filled quickly.

"This event is meant to showcase this community. So let's drop the puck and get the booze flowing," said Oil Barons GM and coach Gord Thibodeau with a huge smile just prior to the national anthem.

A huge Canadian flag, hoisted on an even bigger crane, flew over the stadium making for a true Canadiana setting. It was as if the hockey gods were looking down on Fort McMurray. There was no wind, no snow falling, no freezing temperatures. Not until after the game was over did the winds pick up and the snow start to fall.

The fans were fantastic. The hockey extremely entertaining -- especially since the hometown Oil Barons won 4-2 and Mitchell produced a fight and an assist in the win.

The players, too, were great. They all saluted the crowd following the game and shook hands and hugged each other, knowing they had been part of something special, something historic. They emerged from their dressing rooms in full gear to mingle in the snow, sign autographs and take in what had just taken place. This was a trip back to the roots of hockey. It was a trip down memory lane for all those players who, like Mitchell, grew up playing pond hockey on the neighbourhood lake.

The next night, Hockey Night in Canada showed footage of the game.

The Northern Classic organizing committee is working on getting some of the game-used sticks and a jersey into the Hockey Hall of Fame. The game does need to be recognized in the Hall of Fame for a number of reasons, not the least of which is it was the first junior outdoor game in Canada. But it should also be recognized for the spirit and enthusiasm a small northern city put into the event.

I have not attended an NHL game in the outdoors but, based on my experience at the Northern Classic, an outdoor hockey event is about taking in the game, the sights, the sounds and the people. McMahon Stadium will undoubtedly produce lifelong memories for players and fans alike this February.

Alberta cities, large and small, it would seem, have a knack for pulling off classic hockey events.

Dress warm and we'll see you in February!

E-mail Mike Board at editor@calgaryflames.com

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