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The Outdoor Game
HERITAGE CLASSIC > FEATURES
Not exactly the first time
Not satisfied with winning its 12th Grey Cup, the city of Edmonton is about to steal headlines once again.

A unique chapter in NHL history will be written on Saturday when an expected crowd of 55,000 will watch the Edmonton Oilers host the Montreal Canadiens at Commonwealth Stadium.

NHL hockey in the great outdoors? Believe it or not, it's not such a far-fetched concept.

Saturday's game won't be the first time the NHL has ventured outside. In 1991, the Los Angeles Kings played the New York Rangers in an exhibition game outside Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.

But the inspiration for Saturday's contest (CBC, 7 p.m. ET) was born out of a game between Michigan State (Anson Carter's alma mater) and the University of Michigan (Mike Comrie's old team).

A crowd of 74,554 spectators packed Spartan Stadium (home of the MSU football team) on Oct. 6, 2001 to watch the two bitter college rivals go at it, smashing the world attendance record for hockey. The contest finished in a 3-3 tie.

The previous record was also set at an outdoor stadium. On Mar. 5, 1957, an estimated crowd of 55,000 watched the Soviet Union battle Sweden at Moscow's Lenin Stadium during the gold medal game of the IIHF World Championship.

The idea for the MSU-Michigan outdoor game was the brainchild of MSU assistant David McAuliffe who suggested it years earlier to head coach Ron Mason.

"Ron laughed and said, 'When you're the head coach, you put it together, and I'll come watch,"' McAuliffe said.

"Then I brought up the idea again (in 2000) and Ron laughed again, but (associate athletic director) Mark Hollis said, 'That's a heck of an idea.' Hollis looked into it and helped to make it happen."

The $600,000 US cost to stage the event meant MSU had to draw at least 50,000 fans in order to break even. Most critics snickered, saying they'd be lucky to draw 30,000 - even in a college hockey hotbed such as Michigan.

But it was the Spartans who had the last laugh, selling their original allotment of 61,000 tickets in nine days. Demand was so great that scalpers were selling tickets with face values of $10 and $18 US for $100 the day of the game.

MSU sparred no expense in making the game a memorable sporting spectacle.

Gordie Howe, "Mr. Hockey" himself, dropped the ceremonial opening faceoff after players from both teams walked through a smoke-filled tunnel to the portable ice rink situated between the 20-yard lines.

Country singer Shannon Brown performed during the first intermission and a laser-light show kept the crowd entertained during the second, while MSU cheerleaders, clad in sweat suits and toques, did their dance routines along the football sidelines.

While Saturday's game won't come close to equalling the world-record mark, it will shatter the NHL attendance record. The Philadelphia Flyers and Tampa Bay Lightning played an Apr. 23, 1996 playoff game before 28, 183 fans at Tropicana Field.

And don't be surprised if more outdoor games are scheduled in the future.

The Detroit Red Wings have already explored the possibility of playing a game at the 40,120-seat Comerica Park - home of Major League Baseball's Detroit Tigers - next season.

"We've looked into it," Jimmy Devellano, Red Wings senior vice-president said. "It's something we've examined with the NHL, but it's not happening this year."

with files from Associated Press

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