Fred Rinne/Sun Media - A patch or frozen water; a crisp whiff in the air that sets the nostril afire; the sound of steel blades slicing a song of seductive swagger; a bunch of players chasing a frozen disc, hoping to put that thing between the opposition’s pipes before - and more often - than they can respond.
It doesn’t get much more Canadian than that.
And outdoors, without aid of roof, the snow bank as both bench and boards, is where so many of this country’s great hockey talents learned their trade.
In 2003, the NHL, in partnership with the Edmonton Oilers and Montreal Canadians, hosted the first outdoor NHL game in the modern era at Commonwealth Stadium. A crowd pushing 60,000 braved brutally cold -30 elements that day to watch the spectacle.
Since that time, the event has become an annual occurrence with games played in Buffalo, Chicago, Boston and the experiment has been expanded to two games this season, with Calgary hosting the Habs at McMahon Stadium Feb. 20 and the Penguins hosting Washington at Heinz Field on the now-traditional New Year’s Day date.
Enter the AJHL and more specifically the Fort McMurray Oil Barons.
Always progressive on marketing the community, their franchise, and the league, the braintrust of the MOB are ready to host the first outdoor Junior A hockey game in the world.
On Friday, Nov. 26, the Barons will host the Drayton Valley Thunder in the "Northern Classic, which is a recreational, cultural, and spirit-building celebration that is intended to challenge the fallacy of the negative image often used to portray Fort McMurray and the Wood Buffalo region. The classic setting of Canadiana, surrounded by the picturesque boreal forest, on a true northern landscape offers the perfect canvas on which to write history," says the organizing committee.
"The Oil Barons and the Wood Buffalo region treat the AJHL as a top priority, elevating the League’s status across the Province and Canada. This event will only continue the momentum that the Oil Barons have within the community and as a member within the AJHL," says AJHL VP of Marketing Ryan Bartoshyk.
The Northern Classic will be playing in a temporary stadium built with a capacity of 5,000 seats and hosted at MacDonald Island Park.
"This event is pond hockey - Fort McMurrary style," said Sheldon Germain, chairman of the Northern Classic Organizing Committee. "This amazing venue will be enjoyed by local, provincial and national media and 5,000 fans."
With the League OK and a date fixed, tickets for the Northern Classic went on sale at 8 a.m. on Oct. 15, and the event sold out in only 54 minutes.4,400 tickets gone in a blink of an eye.
"Did I think we would sell out in 54 minutes? No way!" said Tim Reid, co-chairman.
A 22-person committee has spearheaded the event, and Boutilier says the group has done the community, the franchise and the league proud.
"I think there are 16 great communities in this league and we all have a lot to offer, and I think if we get together and take opportunities such as these...together... it will benefit the AJHL as a whole. I’m really excited about it."
"We often get focused on what our own teams are doing, but I think we all need to look at the bigger picture," he said.
The opposing Thunder are guided by Fran Gow, who, as head coach and GM of the Barons’ club in 2000, captured a league title and won the Royal Bank Cup. This is the 10-year anniversary of that accomplishment, and as such there are many events around the game designed to celebrate that win.
"That’s really the Fort McMurray way of doing things," says Gow.
"That 2000 RBC experience was unforgettable, a great time and this is really a wonderful opportunity to remember that... to have a lot of the people involved and back to celebrate. I really appreciate the opportunity that the Oil Barons have asked us to be a part of."
Both Gow and Oil Barons bench boss and GM Gord Thibodeau have tossed aside the usual coach-to-media speak in advance of this game. While both know this is just ’another game’ on the AJHL schedule, they also know this is not any other contest.
"This is a once in a lifetime opportunity," says Thibodeau, who recently coached his 1,000 AJHL contest.
"While we remain focused on the task at hand, there’s no doubt it’s on their minds, and we recognize that this is the first-time ever in Junior A hockey history and it’s important everyone is a part of that," he says.
And with that spirit in mind, both the AJHL and Hockey Canada have given a special one-game dispensation to allow both teams to dress their entire 23-player rosters for this game, so each can get a taste of the experience.
"That could be the most interesting storyline," says Gow.
"How we manage a bench that size."
’It would be very unfortunate to have a player on your roster not being able to take part in the game for roster reasons," he says. "Having them all being able to play and enjoy that once-in-a-lifetime experience is really special."
AJHL president Craig T. Cripps said this is also an outstanding opportunity for the league as it will showcase the AJHL on national scale.
"The Alberta Junior Hockey League is ecstatic for the opportunity to have its players and teams participate in this historic event," he said.
"This could not have been possible without the full support of our sponsors and the municipality," says Boutilier. "The legacy of the infrastructure is huge, and the fact we will always be the first Junior A outdoor game, that speaks to the progressive nature of our community, our franchise and our league and I think that’s important to remember."
"Let’s hope the weather co-operates."
Current projections for game day... -6.8.