While the sight of Wayne Gretzky skating in an Edmonton Oilers uniform for the final time would be more than enough, fans at Commonwealth Stadium will be treated to much more Saturday night at the Heritage Classic.
In the first outdoor NHL game ever, the Montreal Canadiens will face the Oilers after what promises to be a memorable exhibition match featuring Gretzky and other Oiler greats against former Montreal stars such as Guy Lafleur and Larry Robinson.
The first outdoor game in NHL history is enough to fill the 55,000 seats at Commonwealth Stadium, but before the current Canadiens and Oilers take the ice, Gretzky, Jari Kurri, Mark Messier, Grant Fuhr and other Oiler greats from the Stanley Cup-winning squads of the 1980s will face a team comprised of Canadiens’ stars, including LaFleur, Robinson, Steve Shutt and Guy Lapointe.
It will be Gretzky’s first game since retiring as the game’s greatest player in 1999, and he insisted this week it also will be the final one. He last played for Edmonton in winning the Stanley Cup in 1988 before being traded to Los Angeles, then moving on to St. Louis and New York, where he ended his career with the Rangers.
“This will be my last game,” Gretzky said. “I just thought that probably it was only fitting that I play one more time and my kids had an opportunity to see me in an Oiler uniform.”
Messier, the Rangers’ current captain, will be the only active player participating in the exhibition game.
“I’m just going back there to be a part of the game, and it’s a good way for me to say thanks to a lot of people in Edmonton,” Messier said. “I’m just going there to have a good time and be a part of something that’s obviously very important to Edmonton, to the franchise, and obviously to the league.”
Workers spent two weeks building the regulation-size rink with ice two inches thick in a stadium that normally hosts football and other events, such as the 2001 World Athletics Championships.
Weather remains a concern with forecasts calling for temperatures around 14 degrees with possible snow flurries when the puck drops for the NHL game at 7 p.m. EST.
Most hockey players grew up playing for hours on the local pond or lake in bitter cold weather, giving Saturday’s game a nostalgic feel.
“When we were all kids, it would be minus 20 and we would be all out there,” Oilers defenseman Cory Cross said. “But we were all too stupid to know any better. But this is supposed to be entertainment. I think fans are really going to be entertained.”
While the forwards and defensemen are moving constantly and can return to heated benches, the goaltenders won’t have that luxury.
“The game is going to be particularly tough on the goaltenders,” Canadiens goalie Jose Theodore said. “The other players will have heaters on the bench and they’ll be doing a lot of skating, but if there’s not much action, there’s a chance the goalies will get stiff. There could be a greater chance of injury if you’re not warmed up.”
Also adding to the excitement Saturday will be the play of the current Oilers, who beat Toronto 3-2 on Thursday for their fourth straight victory.
Ty Conklin stopped 31 shots to win his fourth consecutive start and earn his fifth victory in six games since replacing Tommy Salo, who is on injured reserve with a hip injury. Conklin has allowed just five goals in four games.
This will be the final stop on a five-game road trip for the Canadiens, who dropped to 1-2-0-1 with a 2-1 loss to Calgary on Thursday.
While this is a first for the NHL, other outdoor hockey games have drawn larger crowds. In October 2001, Michigan State and Michigan played to a 3-3 tie before 74,554 spectators at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Michigan, to set a world attendance record for hockey.
STANDINGS (through Nov. 20): Canadiens - 18 points, 5th place, 10 PB, Northeast Division. Oilers - 22 points, 3rd place, 6 PB, Northwest Division.
TEAM LEADERS: Canadiens - Sheldon Souray, 6 goals; Mike Ribeiro, 10 assists and 13 points; Craig Rivet, 30 PIM. Oilers - Raffi Torres, 8 goals; Mike York and Ales Hemsky, 10 assists; York, 16 points; Ethan Moreau, 36 PIM.
SPECIAL TEAMS (through Nov. 20): Canadiens - Power play: 11.8 percent (10 for 85), 28th in NHL. Penalty killing: 77.2 percent (61 for 79), 29th. Oilers - Power play: 13.3 percent (13 for 98), 22nd. Penalty killing: 78.1 percent (75 for 96), 26th.
SEASON SERIES: Oilers, 1-0.
LAST MEETING: Nov. 4; Oilers, 4-2. At Montreal, Torres and Fernando Pisani scored first-period goals and Salo stopped 26 shots to lead Edmonton.
ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Canadiens - 3-5-0-1 on the road; Oilers - 7-2-1-0 at home.