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'It was so cold': Ex-Oilers, Canadiens remember first Heritage Classic in Edmonton

Steam rises from Montreal Canadiens goalie Jose Theodore during the second period of NHL outdoor action against the Edmonton Oilers at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton on Saturday Nov. 22, 2003. (CP PHOTO/Tom Hanson) Steam rises from Montreal Canadiens goalie Jose Theodore during the second period of NHL outdoor action against the Edmonton Oilers at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton on Saturday Nov. 22, 2003. (CP PHOTO/Tom Hanson)
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Jose Theodore just wanted a keepsake. He didn't envision the idea becoming iconic.

The Montreal Canadiens goaltender headed into the 2003 Heritage Classic — the NHL's first regular-season outdoor game — against the host Edmonton Oilers feeling both excited and uncertain.

He was also keen to make a specific memory.

So, along with one of his brothers and the team's trainer, Theodore hatched a plan to secure a red and blue Canadiens tuque, pompom and all, atop his mask.

"It was just going to be for warmups," he recalled in a phone interview. "Hopefully there's gonna be some pictures or hockey cards and I'm gonna have a good souvenir.

"Pretty much what I had in mind."

After his teammates saw what their netminder was sporting in temperatures that approached -30 C with the wind chill, they convinced him to keep it on for the game.

"Why not?" Theodore recalled thinking. "I didn't know it would be a big thing."

But it was.

"Did an interview after and right away the tuque was all anyone wanted to talk about," Theodore, who backstopped Montreal to a 4-3 win that frigid November night nearly two decades ago, said with a laugh. "Someone asked, 'You want to donate it to the Hall of Fame?' If my tuque is in the Hall of Fame, that's a good start.

"People were talking about the tuque more than the hockey."

Close to 20 years later, the NHL will be back at Edmonton's Commonwealth Stadium for another edition of the Heritage Classic showcase when the Oilers welcome the Calgary Flames for Sunday's first-ever outdoor Battle of Alberta.

The temperature at puck drop on Nov. 22, 2003 — minus the wind chill — was a teeth-chattering -18 C.

It won't be nearly as cold this weekend, with the thermometer expected to read somewhere near the freezing mark when the teams take the ice at the home of the CFL's Edmonton Elks.

The players involved the first time around could only dream of those downright balmy conditions.

"Guys wore balaclavas, others wore turtlenecks … trying to find warmth, but also comfort," said former Edmonton centre Shawn Horcoff. "No one knew what to expect. That was the biggest thing.

"But it didn't really matter. We all thought the experience was incredible."

Oilers great Kevin Lowe, the team's general manager at the time, remembers getting a temperature reading in his backyard early that morning.

It read -32 C.

"At that point, I'm thinking 'Oh no,'" Lowe said.

The Oilers and Canadiens scheduled an alumni game featuring Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Grant Fuhr, Guy Lafleur, Larry Robinson and Steve Shutt in the afternoon before the NHL rosters were set to play.

The league now has outdoor games down to a science. But back in 2003 — an adversarial time with a lockout looming — it was uncharted territory in terms of equipment and technology.

"Groundbreaking stuff," Lowe said. "Far exceeded anybody's expectations."

Things were also tenuous in the moment.

The league and players met before the game to discuss the harsh conditions. Shelving the event was on the table.

"The alumni just played in the afternoon — Guy Lafleur, Wayne Gretzky — there's 57,000 people in the stands," said former Montreal defenceman Stephane Quintal, now the NHL's senior vice-president of player safety. "We all looked at each other like, 'There's no freaking way we're cancelling.'"

The players were all in agreement.

"I grew up outside on the ponds," ex-Oilers winger Raffi Torres said. "Where I fell in love with the game."

In his first stint as Canadiens head coach, Claude Julien said that while the situation was unique, two points were on the line.

"The challenges were there," he said. "Amazing how quickly guys were changing. Short shifts because it was so cold. It was hard to breathe."

And because of the plunging temperatures, organizers placed giant heaters by the benches.

The only problem?

"Super hot," said Horcoff, now an assistant GM with the Detroit Red Wings. "Then you go up over the boards and it was this blast of frozen Arctic air that hits you in the face."

"The reason I remember that," Torres added with a laugh, "is because I had a nice warm seat for the latter part of the third period."

Theodore and Oilers counterpart Ty Conklin weren't as lucky in the opposing creases — and in the elements.

"Gloves underneath my (trapper), my blocker," Theodore said. "The water on my jersey was frozen."

This year's Heritage Classic will be the NHL's 38th outdoor game. The league has the ice-making and maintenance process down to a science.

But back in 2003, the playing surface was a significant concern.

"So cold the ice was really dry and chipping. You could see pieces all over," said Quintal, before adding with a chuckle: "Especially when (bruising Edmonton forward) Georges Laraque was skating."

Theodore said the ice was another big challenge for goaltenders.

"We need to slide on our pads," he said. "It was like Velcro. You would push twice as hard to get half of what you usually needed.

"Goalies suffered the most."

Julien, meanwhile, was impressed by how fans endured the proceedings.

"There must have been lots of alcohol involved," he said.

Theodore enjoys reminiscing about the outdoor game. He just wasn't as enthused in the moment.

"Can't say during it was fun," said Theodore, who added the tuque wasn't just for esthetics. "Fun in warmups, the first 10 minutes — 'Oh yeah, this is cool' — a lot of people, you're playing outside.

"As the game went on, I was like, 'OK this is getting really cold.'"

But he looked good, and set a trend that had Canadiens fans clamouring for their own version of his tuque.

"I learned after there was a rule that you cannot modify jerseys and equipment," Theodore said. "Technically, if I would have asked the league before, they would probably have said no."

Fortunately he didn't.

"Sometimes the best ideas are the one you don't overthink," Theodore said. "I did it for me — I wanted one picture — and it got big.

"Something cool I really didn't expect."

No pun intended.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 27, 2023.

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