Calgary builds hockey heritage

A big 2011: Heritage Classic, Hockey Canada expansion, World U20s

21.02.2011
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The 2011 Heritage Classic was the first NHL outdoor game in Canada since the 2003 original in Edmonton. Photo: AJ Messier / NHLI via Getty Images

CALGARY – Even though the game time temperature for Calgary’s 4-0 outdoor victory over Montreal at Sunday’s Heritage Classic was a frigid -8° C, all signs point to a major heating up of hockey’s presence in Alberta’s largest city this year.

It’s not just about the Flames’ recent surge back into NHL playoff contention. In the months ahead, Calgary will also witness the emergence of state-of-the-art new facilities for Hockey Canada and co-host the 2012 IIHF World U20 Championship with Edmonton.

Talk about going big.

The 41,022 fans that packed McMahon Stadium certainly appreciated the epic setting as Miikka Kiprusoff earned the first outdoor shutout in modern NHL history with 39 saves and Rene Bourque scored twice. The 1960-built home of the Canadian Football League’s Calgary Stampeders isn’t a fancy venue with its muddy, icy parking lot and dim hallways, but the hearty enthusiasm of the red-clad masses left a lasting impression.

“I think it’s right up there with playing your first game, scoring your first goal, things like that,” said Bourque, who represented Canada at the 2010 IIHF World Championship. “It’s fun to be part of this and playing in front of these people, especially when you’re sitting on the bench and you’re looking out and seeing 40,000 people. It’s cold outside, but they’re cheering loud and having a good time.”

There was the thump-thump-thump of gloves clapping after every Flames goal, and from the other side of the stadium you could hear a massive distant roar, more reminiscent of an Olympic opening ceremony than the raw, explosive cheers in a standard hockey arena.

Hockey, especially on a North American-sized rink, is usually controlled madness in a box, but the Heritage Classic had a different feel under wide-open prairie skies and slowly fading afternoon sunshine. It was actually warmer than the original Heritage Classic in 2003, where Montreal defeated Edmonton 4-3 with the thermometer at -19° C.

Of course, as is often the case with games played in stadiums, ice conditions weren’t perfect here. “The puck was bouncing around like a tennis ball out there,” Canadiens defenceman James Wisniewski said.

In retrospect, it was probably wise that the gold medal game at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver was not played at the 60,000-capacity BC Place Stadium – an idea that was briefly considered before Canada Hockey Place (now Rogers Arena) was finally chosen. It’s one thing to have erratic ice for a domestic league regular season game – with all due respect to the diligent hands-on work of icemaker Dan Craig’s crew in Calgary – but an Olympic final demands the best.

The craze for stadium games goes beyond Canada, of course. The United States has hosted four straight Winter Classics on New Year’s Day – most recently the much-anticipated Pittsburgh-Washington tilt that was documented on HBO’s behind-the-scenes 24/7 series. Going into American football stadiums has been one of the NHL’s best recent marketing moves in the U.S.

And the 2010 IIHF World Championship also kicked off with a world-record attendance of 77,803 when Germany beat the Americans 2-1 at Veltins-Arena in Gelsenkirchen. That figure was eclipsed in December at Michigan Stadium in the United States when host Michigan blanked its traditional college rival Michigan State 5-0 in front of 113,411.

Besides the hype of the outdoor setting, the shooting tongues of fire, and rock performances by Five For Fighting and Metric, it was nice to see the Heritage Classic respect its name by celebrating the legacy of the great 1980s Montreal-Calgary rivalry. An alumni game featuring names from the ‘86 Cup champ Habs and the triumphant ‘89 Flames was staged at McMahon Stadium on Saturday. This time, it was a 5-3 win for Montreal, but the crowd roared happily anyway when mustachioed local hero Lanny McDonald converted a penalty shot attempt.

Ultimately, the difference between the Heritage Classic and the Winter Classic is that in Canada, an outdoor game isn’t needed to “sell the game”. It just feeds an insatiable appetite.

“The game in Canada is a culture here for us,” said Flames coach Brent Sutter. “It’s always been a huge part of life in Canada.”

And that footprint is getting even deeper with the new, 46,450-square-metre Athletic and Ice Complex being built at Calgary’s Canada Olympic Park (dating back to the 1988 Winter Games). This is the future headquarters of Hockey Canada, plus close to 20 other national and provincial sports organizations.

In December, three North American-sized rinks opened here: all were in use when IIHF.com visited on a Friday afternoon. An additional 3,000-capacity international-sized rink will open, along with office towers, in September 2011.

“We didn’t just want to build another hockey rink,” explained WinSport Canada project coordinator Steve Palmer. “We wanted to create something that Hockey Canada, WinSport, and the whole country could be proud of.”

It’s hard to summarize all the special features that the still-emerging, $214-million complex will incorporate.

A spectacular wood wave roof like the Richmond Olympic Oval, where speed-skating took place at last year’s Olympics. A total of 11 dressing rooms for elite players, the public, and officials – and that’s just at the international-sized rink. (The others have seven apiece.)

A huge kitchen catering “Fuel for Gold”-style, sport-specific meals. Sports medicine labs and the latest fitness equipment. Plexiglas walls on penalty boxes and player benches for sledge hockey players. Environmental technology that will save $400,000 a year in utility costs – recycling ice shavings for toilet water, for instance. A victory plaza and a display area for Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame.

The complex is completely wired – video, sound, internet cameras, TVs in dressing rooms, you name it. Hockey Canada plans to use it as a teaching facility, whether creating instructional DVDs, holding teaching clinics for coaches, officials, and players, or centralizing national teams before major events like a World Women’s Championship or World Juniors.

WinSport has also proposed building a retail shopping complex, restaurants, and two hotels at Canada Olympic Park, starting in 2012. If the latter development comes to fruition, hockey maniacs will have another alternative to Flames Central, the big Flames-themed restaurant on 8th Avenue, for hanging out.

Former NHL and Canadian international coach Tom Watt put it in perspective during a chat with IIHF.com at the Calgary Saddledome: “I was here in 1980 with the Olympic team when Father David Bauer was the manager. The Saddledome wasn’t built yet. Where we are now, there were ATCO trailers end to end, which were dormitories for the players. The players were fed out of the Roundhouse Centre. We played in the old Calgary Corral. At that time, the office for the Olympic team was a trailer just outside the Corral. I guess Hockey Canada’s come a long way.”

The Athletic and Ice Complex tells the rest of the world that Canada is determined to maintain its preeminence in hockey, plus the ground it gained in other Olympic winter sports in Vancouver.

Starting on December 26, 2011, Canada will also be gunning to regain the World U20 crown that it’s surrendered to the U.S. and Russia the last two years. And if the U20 Canadians crack the gold medal game, as they’ve done every year since 2002, it won’t just be that January 5, 2012 tilt at the Saddledome that’s sold out.

All tickets for all games – not just involving Canada – were gone as of January this year. That virtually guarantees an all-time tournament record attendance of more than 570,000 thanks to the use of NHL buildings in both Calgary and Edmonton. The current record is held by Ottawa at 453,282.

Suffice it to say that an electric atmosphere will reign in Calgary, rivaling the Flames’ three runs to the Stanley Cup final (1986, 1989, 2004) and the ‘88 Winter Games. Calgary got three World Junior games in 1995 when nearby Red Deer was the principal host, but this will be another level.

Yes, Calgary’s building a hockey heritage that just may stand as tall as the nearby Rocky Mountains.

LUCAS AYKROYD

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