The Mesmerizing 2003 Heritage Classic Alumni Game

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2003 Heritage Classic
EDMONTON, AB - NOVEMBER 21: A view of an ice sculpture outside of Rexall Place with photos from the inaugural Heritage Classic game in 2003 between the Edmonton Oilers and the Montreal Canadiens as seen prior to an NHL game between the Edmonton Oilers and the Florida Panthers on November 21, 2013 in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Derek Leung/Getty Images)

For as often as retrospectives on the National Hockey League’s first outdoor stadium event rhapsodize about the endurance of fans and players through Arctic temperatures, what stands out most obviously revisiting the 2003 Heritage Classic is a different environmental element: sunshine.

See, despite a near-doubling of the city’s population since the Edmonton Oilers dynasty of the 1980s, Alberta’s capital has maintained a small-town mentality that permits residents and tourist boards to delight in its standing among North America’s sunniest places by days per year and sunshine hours.

Ever dance with the angels in the bright sunlight? On a winter afternoon over a frozen lake, it almost feels like you can; ice glistening as your skates cross over, trees swaying with the wind in your ears, crystals fixed to your eyelashes, the outdoor rink experience plays upon childlike whims unmatched by anything outside of the jubilation of a Stanley Cup presentation.

The Mesmerizing 2003 Heritage Classic Alumni Game

Therefore, it is fitting the NHL launched its first spiritual experience personified with a contest between alumni of the Oilers and Montréal Canadiens appropriately known as the MegaStars Game, opening the gates of Hockey Heaven to Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton. Imagine the lunacy of a hypothetical NFL reunion matchup featuring winners of 123 championship rings—153 including staff—and 111 All-Star Game appearances, and your appreciation for the Canadiens and Oilers dynasties of the 70s and 80s must certainly grow.

While certain aspects of the event should rightly be held up to scrutiny, mostly with respect to the dangers of extreme temperature, recounting the effort of the players and staff involved in anything less than the most glowing fashion would undersell their importance to the legacy of outdoor hockey exhibitions in the NHL today. Credit is also owed to the 57,167 devotees on-premises, whose constant enthusiasm throughout an event that risked sudden cancellation at any time helped to will a once-in-a-lifetime event into experience.

A Blast From The Past

On November 22, 2003, the site of Hockey Night in Canada was a playground: in Edmonton’s crease in particular, Grant Fuhr and Bill Ranford turned cartwheels to make two-padded stack saves, topping the highlight reels with windmill glove snatches as well. Canada’s national broadcaster saw fit to experiment with its coverage as well, using helicopter footage and a dolly atop the glass to augment the first high-definition production in CBC Sports history.

Up and down the lineup, both squads displayed how instinctual the overlaps and drop passes that worked so effectively in their primes come to them, particularly Ken “The Rat” Linseman of the Oilers, whose tap-in 1:38 into the match tracks with his penchant for big game heroics. Through gestures such as Kevin Lowe’s two-knee shot block and equipment choices such as Steve Penney’s brown goalie pads and each referee’s throwback cream uniforms, the event successfully pantomimed a bygone era of the sport more authentically than any Hollywood movie ever could. By the end of the 30-minute match, twelve Hall of Famers had touched the ice: Guy Carbonneau, Guy Lafleur, Guy Lapointe, Larry Robinson and Steve Shutt of Les Canadiens, in addition to Glenn Anderson, Paul Coffey, Jari Kurri, Fuhr, Lowe, Mark Messier and Wayne Gretzky of the Oilers, a collection of excellence that only the resurrection of Maurice Richard could upstage.

Number 99 Forever

You could learn all there is to know about the legend of hockey’s greatest competitor from his shift 3:20 into the Heritage Classic MegaStars Game. After sneaking over the boards, the Commonwealth crowd stirs from a muted anticipation to euphoria after The Great One pounces on an errant neutral zone pass. Pivoting 180° on a dime, Gretzky shields the puck with one hand on his stick while cutting across centre ice, making way for a teammate and hunting for his famous office behind the net. Edmonton Always had a late-arriver streaking down the middle for number 99 to make an incisive pass to: while Wayne had no hand in either of Edmonton’s goals in the alumni team’s 2-0 victory—the second courtesy of a Marty McSorley one-timer from a Linseman pass—I cannot imagine any Edmontonian describing Gretzky’s first appearance as an Oiler in 15 years as anything less than an extraordinary must-see event.

The Last Word

Coincidentally, Oilers and Habs fans who tuned into the 5-2 Buffalo Sabres victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 2022 Heritage Classic holding out for a redux between the modern Edmonton and Montréal squads may have their wish: on Hockey Night In Canada the evening before Buffalo and Toronto met outdoors in Hamilton, Sportsnet ran a report on the NHL’s interest in bringing teams back to Commonwealth Stadium for a regular-season game celebrating twenty years since the 2003 Heritage Classic.

Should the rumored discussions lead to a confirmed date in Edmonton, both the Oilers and Canadiens would have good reason to call for a rematch, with Edmonton 4-3 to José Théodore and Montréal in the actual match of consequence in 2003, and many of the Habs alumni also participating in a February 4, 2022 outdoor benefit game loss against Edmonton for lung health research. Only time will tell when the passing of the torch between the high-octane scoring duo of the past, in Wayne Gretzky and Jari Kurri, and present, Leon Draisaitl, and Connor McDavid, is set to occur.

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