The Canadiens have always been a very hot ticket in Calgary. Back when the NHL had a schedule that catered to the fans rather than to owners' desires to save on plane fare, every team in the league played every other team at least twice, home and away.
In those halcyon days the Montreal Canadiens played Calgary on New Year's Eve in what locally was a bit of a hockey event. Canadiens fans in Alberta collected to go see the game. It was an occasion for fond reminiscences among those fans because there wasn't much to cheer about with the team at that time.
This year that game was played as an outdoor spectacle in late February. Les Habitants only show up in Calgary two out of three years now. One of those rare appearances was used up in what could only be called some sort of exhibition match.
The game was played outdoors at McMahon Stadium, a chilly venue in February. Hell, it's cold in October. The only intelligent time to play any outdoor game in Canada in winter is at noon, so of course the NHL chose 4pm MST time for their game. They were more interested in an eastern TV audience than the poor fans who had sit out there in a minus-8 wind chill in a stadium that's open at both ends and lets the wind whip through.
The players endured the frigid temperatures with aplomb, but the ice wasn't as lucky. The entire surface was cracked and bumpy. There was one corner that the players, by mutual agreement, would only ease into like frightened octogenarians because the ice was just that dangerous there.
The Canadiens couldn't make a pass all night and bouncing pucks were constantly being scooped up by the Flames' more direct north-south offense and being turned into odd-man rushes. The Flames won easily, 4-0.
It was so cold the ice guru in charge, Dan Craig, was afraid to run the Zamboni between periods. The fear was the ice would shatter if the Zamboni was used. This wasn't a problem at the first Heritage Classic in Edmonton that was held under much colder conditions. Still, the ice was horrible all game and deteriorated as it went with no Zamboni to even out the ruts.
The game had a few more odd features. The Calgary Flames wore retro-style uniforms. Unfortunately, these weren't uniforms that either the Calgary Flames or the Atlanta Flames ever wore in team history. The yellow and red uniforms were a nod to the old Calgary Tigers of the Western Hockey League from the 1920s. This wasn't a uniform the Tigers ever wore, just one in the style of the old Tigers. It's hard to generate nostalgia with a retrospective look that never actually existed. The original Calgary Flames uniforms would have made a lot more sense for this event.
Ironically enough, the '20s were the era when professional hockey leagues came to understand they couldn't hold games on outdoor rinks because of the horrible and unpredictable ice conditions that often prevailed. So the NHL managed to duplicate those original ice conditions as well—talk about retro.
How many outdoor games a year should the NHL have?
The Canadiens' attempt at a Heritage moment involved Carey Price's creepy paint job on his mask. It was meant to be a picture of Jaucque Plante's early mask superimposed on Price's. What you got though were Plante's eyes peering out from the center of Carey Price's forehead through a flesh coloured mask. The double ears and mouth made Price look like something from the Star Wars cantina.
The game itself was nothing much to watch. The conditions would have gotten an indoor game cancelled. The home fans seemed happy enough with the game and the win. No one was hurt and Montreal managed to salvage their road trip by winning their last western Canada game against Vancouver the next night.
The NHL has had great success with the Winter Classic on New Year's Day. They want to keep that positive buzz going in the US by using only American teams for that outdoor game. The revamped Heritage Classic is back as a sop to Canadian fans who feel their teams deserve a chance to play in the Winter Classic as well.
For all the hoopla the only outdoor NHL game that has even resembled a good hockey game was the Detroit-Chicago game back in 2009. This year there was rain. In the original Buffalo-Pittsburgh game, bad ice and snow. It was too cold in Edmonton and the ice this year was 1920s bad in Calgary. These events are all about the spectacle and very little about the hockey.
I'm happy to see the teams make it out of this one uninjured. I'd keep the New Years Day game because, for whatever reason, it works. I'd be happy if Montreal never played in another one of these outdoor games. I watched it from beginning to end and it was a waste of my time.