With the occurrence of two key events, it has seemed over the past few years that an outdoor NHL game being played in Winnipeg would be almost a foregone conclusion. The first event was the return of the Jets in May of 2011, bringing an NHL hockey team back to the city for the first time since 1996. The second, and equally important, event was the completion of Investors Group Field in 2013.
The NHL has experienced many successes in outdoor games dating back to the Heritage Classic in 2003. This is when the NHL made its outdoor debut on a frigid day in Edmonton as the hometown Oilers took on the Montreal Canadiens.
The return of the Jets, combined with massive success at the box office, made it virtually certain that an outdoor game would take place in Winnipeg. The only real question was when.
Planning for such events takes a long time, with many exterior factors influencing the if and how of the deal. The NHL and Winnipeg Jets announced in 2013 that there would be an outdoor game. The plan was for the game to occur in the team’s fifth season since returning to the NHL, but there was a problem. The 2015 Grey Cup was being hosted by Winnipeg. The window the NHL desired had already been taken by the Canadian Football League. The people of Winnipeg would have to wait a little longer to see the NHL on outdoor ice.
On March 6, 2016, the NHL announced that the 2016 Tim Hortons NHL Heritage Classic would take place on the weekend of Oct. 22 and 23, featuring a special rivalry: the Winnipeg Jets vs. the Edmonton Oilers.
“Thirteen years, 17 outdoor games played, with a million fans attending; now the Jets will become the 22nd NHL franchise to participate in an outdoor game,” said NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly.
“Both the Oilers and the original Jets trace their roots to the old World Hockey Association (WHA), and both entered the NHL as expansion franchises when the WHA folded in 1979,” said Daly.
The Winnipeg Jets were three-time league champions in the WHA, including winning the last-ever Avco Cup against the Oilers in 1979. But that success against their Albertan rivals ended when the teams moved to the NHL and Wayne Gretzky joined the Oilers. Gretzky, the all-time leading points scorer in NHL history, will serve as the captain of the Oilers alumni team on Oct. 22 when Jets and Oilers greats from years past face off one last time. Dale Hawerchuk will assume the alumni captain duties for the Jets team.
“It’s really exciting that the game is going to be in Winnipeg,” says Gretzky. “We had some great matchups with the Jets and some wonderful playoff series. It’s really an exciting time. Hockey is so big right now throughout North America and especially across Canada. I don’t play in a lot of alumni games. But, every now and then you get a special event or game, and this event is really special.”
“This won’t be my first outdoor game in Winnipeg,” says Hawerchuk. “There were many nights while I was playing here that some teammates and I would sneak out to an outdoor rink in Charleswood and have a little outdoor game. We had a lot of fun. Once a couple kids figured out who we were and managed to draw a pretty big crowd. That was back in the day when there were no cell phones. I’m sure we’ll have a bigger one (crowd) in October.”
The return of the Jets and the planning of the Heritage Classic have largely been due to the work of True North Sports and Entertainment chairman Mark Chipman, who spoke both at the press conference on March 6 as well as at the jersey and alumni roster unveiling on Aug. 5 at Portage and Main.
“To step out and see this kind of support — for the first time it feels real,” said Chipman. “When we announced it back in the MTS Centre it was kind of sterile, but this is real now. It feels really good, and it’s getting super exciting for our organization.”
Winnipeg Jets forward Blake Wheeler was there to help model the newly unveiled jersey and spoke very highly of the support the team receives, even when there’s no ice to be seen.
“It’s awesome. In the middle of summer, to see the kind of support we get, even now, it’s incredible. Being a part of this game is going to be a cool experience for us and for our whole city. Getting that many of our fans into one stadium to see us play is going to be really awesome,” said Wheeler.
This will be the fourth Heritage Classic, the Canadian counterpart to the Winter Classics and Stadium Series that are held in American NHL cities. The first Heritage Classic in 2003 was played during a cold snap in Edmonton, with wind chill at game time at -30 C. The iconic image of Jose Theodore of the Montreal Canadiens wearing a toque over his goalie mask will be an image etched into the minds of hockey fans for years to come. The 2011 edition in Calgary was also quite nippy, with the wind chill around -25 C. Wind wasn’t a factor for the 2014 edition, as the game was played in the enclosed B.C. Place in Vancouver.
While Winnipeg may get a reputation for being very cold, the reality is that temperatures in late October are usually quite mild. The daily high for Winnipeg on Oct. 23 last year was 9 C with a low of 3 C, and in 2014, on that date the daytime high was 17 C with a low of 9 C. Playing outdoor games when the weather is above freezing is not uncommon for the NHL, and their ice-makers are very well versed in dealing with such conditions. The hottest outdoor NHL game that has been played was between the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks at Dodgers Stadium in 2014, when temperatures were 17 C and humid.
For fans heading to the alumni game and Heritage Classic, the promise of warm weather, a state-of-the-art stadium and two up-and-coming teams can only boost the level of excitement this coming October in Winnipeg.