There is a lot to like about the NHL's latest venture into the great outdoors, beginning with the fact that the Winnipeg Jets' opposition in the game – announced Sunday and to be played this coming Oct. 23 at Investors Group Field, the home of the CFL's Blue Bombers – will be the Edmonton Oilers.
Long before the Winter Classic became a New Year's Day staple on the National Hockey League calendar, the Oilers pioneered the concept of the regular-season outdoor game back in 2003. In the beginning, there was a certain initial resistance from the NHL.
Thankfully for them, former Oiler president Patrick LaForge persistently nagged and lobbied the league until it finally said yes. But the Oilers were on their own for the first Heritage Classic, and naturally, the game was played on one of the coldest days of the year. Edmonton faced the visiting Montreal Canadiens, with an alumni game held in the afternoon. Even with the bitterly cold temperatures and brittle ice at Commonwealth Stadium, it proved to be a smashing success.
As night fell, Canadiens' goalie José Théodore came onto the ice, wearing a tuque over his goal mask, which was immediately whisked away to the Hall Of Fame in the aftermath of a 4-3 Montreal win.
Now, some 17 outdoor games later – including two staged in California – Manitoba finally gets its first, to be played early next season during a Blue Bombers bye week.
But what makes this one a little unique and therefore a little special is that the two participating teams share the same World Hockey Association roots, a point Jets' chairman Mark Chipman highlighted in making the official announcement Sunday.
In the final WHA game ever played, the Jets defeated an Oilers team that included Wayne Gretzky on May 20, 1979, to win the last WHA championship. The next season, both were admitted to the NHL, along with the Quebec Nordiques and the Hartford Whalers, as expansion franchises.
The Jets and Oilers had an excellent, if one-sided, rivalry in their early NHL days, Edmonton led by Gretzky and Mark Messier, Winnipeg by Dale Hawerchuk. Gretzky and Hawerchuk will captain their respective teams in the legends game, and Gretzky has already reached out and put the arm on Messier, Jari Kurri, Paul Coffey and all the old gang to compete. Winnipeg will feature Hawerchuk and Teemu Selanne, who tweeted out his support for the game Sunday. The likes of Bobby Hull, Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson – the biggest WHA stars – are also expected to attend the festivities.
If the alumni game was the highlight of the most recent outdoor game between the Colorado Avalanche and the Detroit Red Wings, where Patrick Roy started training months before, and Ray Bourque threw an actual, honest-to-goodness bodycheck, well, this one might even top it.
Gretzky doesn't appear in many old-timers' games, so for him to make an exception here already elevates the event into a different category.
According to NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly, Chipman deserves most of the credit for making the legends game come to life.
"I know he personally spent time recruiting Wayne to do this – and to Wayne's credit, it didn't take much recruiting," Daly said. "He was happy to do it. I think the rivalry still has a fond place in his heart."
The fact that the Oilers have a new rising star in Connor McDavid to feature, on a team that will probably look significantly different by next fall, only adds to its charm.
Chipman wryly noted that while Winnipeggers are a hardy breed, there was no point in tempting Mother Nature, or making things unnecessarily uncomfortable for their fans by staging the game any later in the season than was necessary.
As for the venue, Daly suggested the home of the Blue Bombers – with its capacity of around 33,000 seats – "will work really well for a hockey game. It's a close and tight venue and the fans will be much closer to the rink than they are typically in some of our outdoor games.
"It will be an intimate game numbers wise, but that could make it better."
Originally, the league and the Jets were negotiating to have an outdoor game played back in November that would take place right after the Grey Cup. But that proved problematic for a number of reasons that Daly didn't specify.
"Sometimes, logistics are just difficult to tick off," he said. "But we obviously got there."