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It's Nice Outside—Oilers Stage Heritage Classic

Usually, a full house huddled together at Commonwealth Stadium is an indication that the Edmonton Eskimos of the Canadian Football League playing.

On November 22, 2003, Commonwealth Stadium did not host an Eskimo's football game, but an Oilers hockey match. The Oilers sold over 52,000 tickets to the Heritage Classic, which pitted the Oilers against the Montréal Canadiens on a temporary rink. The game marked the first time two National Hockey League (NHL) clubs met outdoors for an official game; by the time the league formed in 1917, all of the teams had already moved to indoor arenas.

Guy LaFleurPrior to the NHL match-up, a classic alumni game was staged, pitting a team of all-time Canadiens greats, led by Hall of Famer Guy Lafleur, against an Oilers team led by Wayne Gretzky.  For Gretzky, the event marked his only “oldtimers” game, as he swore to never play in an event like this again.

The main event saw both the Oilers and Canadiens don classic jerseys; the Oilers donned the classic blue-and-orange jerseys worn when the franchise entered the league in 1979, and the Canadiens sported jerseys  based on a model worn by the franchise right after the Second World War.

The game was easily the hottest ticket in Edmonton sports history, trumping Grey Cups, the 2001 World Championships of Athletics and the 1978 opening and closing ceremonies of the Commonwealth Games. Since season-ticket holders got guaranteed seats and had the right to purchase more tickets before they went on sale to the public, the team sold over 15,000 season tickets, the highest number in the club’s history.

Since only 7,000 tickets were left for the general public, a lottery was held to determine who would buy the remaining seats. The Oilers selected 1,750 winners who could each buy four tickets. The team received 750,000 entries, representing a demand of 3 million tickets, and over three times the population of the city itself. The Oilers drew winners from as far as Fairbanks, Alaska and Leeds, England.

The genesis of the game comes from the “Cold War,” a game held October 6, 2001, between Michigan State University, and their bitter rivals fromOilers puck the University of Michigan at Spartan Stadium. That outdoor game drew 74,554 fans, creating interest for the NHL to repeat the outdoor feat.

In the end, the 2003-04 season’s highlight event may not be the Stanley Cup or the All-Star game, but a crisp November Saturday when pro teams decided to go back to the grassroots and play outside.

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