As the week leading up to the Heritage Classic picked up steam, most of the serious talk revolved around the dropping temperatures, and the ability to get a proper ice surface in place before game time on Sunday afternoon.
There was little doubt that the challenge would be immense, but if anyone was up to it, certainly Dan Craig was the man for the job. He’s been on call for the NHL in the capacity of “ice guru” for the past three years when it comes to the outdoor franchise.
But incredibly low temperatures, as well as windy conditions made it more and more difficult to ensure an NHL grade ice surface for the weekend celebration. And that all became noticeable come Saturday afternoon, as the Canadiens / Flames Alumni game got underway.
Extreme cold clearly wreaked havoc, causing the ice to chip under stress, and to remain rough and weak in the corners. It became quite evident as the the minutes wore on that many of the players were struggling with their footing, as ruts in the uneven ice surface made it difficult to play hockey – even at a slower pace than the rink would be seeing less than 24 hours later.
Even Flame Alumni Craig Conroy, when asked how the ice surface was feeling, did not beat around the bush. He was quite vocal that it was not in good condition.
There were many a comment that Sunday would be different. The ice surface had undergone 6 grueling hours of use on Saturday (between the afternoon family skates, and the Alumni Game itself). Without exposure to a single blade until game time on Sunday, the ice would have plenty of time to recover, and be repaired. It would be blanketed over night to keep the temperature up, removing the brittleness.
So when the puck dropped just after 6pm Sunday afternoon, hopes were high. But it didn’t take long to have those hopes dashed. After the first play stoppage, the ice crew was immediately out with spray bottles and buckets, visiting the corner just to the left of Carey Price. A visit that would take place multiple times throughout the evening.
But it wasn’t just the corners that were causing issues. The open ice was looking more like the open ocean on a blustery day. Choppy ice refused to allow the puck to settle down, making it virtually impossible to create any tape to tape play. Poor ice made it dangerous for players to navigate the rink – and in my opinion – left possibility for injury. You could see that many of the players were not playing at full speed, and were exercising caution.
So where does this leave the future of the outdoor games that the NHL has clearly adopted as an annual event? With an attendance of over 41,000 people at McMahon Stadium, the question is easily answered. The tradition will continue. The NHL is a business, and if the money flows for these events, clearly they’ll continue.
But is it really fair to either team, especially in the heat of a playoff run, to make them battle for two extremely important points in such adverse conditions?
I don’t want to take anything away from Dan Craig and his team. They did the very best given what they had to work with. But let’s look at the facts here.
The ice was so poor that a Zamboni could not be used to level the surface between periods. This led to a granular surface that no professional should be expected to compete on. Due to constant play stoppage for ice repairs in the corners, the players were forced to try and maintain warmth during those lengthy stops -and remain game ready.
For a team like the Montreal Canadiens, who rely on a fast paced, tape to tape passing game, as well as quick transitional hockey, it made the game virtually impossible. Not that I’m making excuses for a team that needed to step to the plate a bit more. But their type of game was definitely not feasible to play on that surface.
As I have said to many Twitter followers, friends, FaceBook readers, and the like – I would be saying the exact same thing even if the Habs had come away with the victory.
Putting players at risk, and making them play in a venue that is not conducive to the NHL level of play, is inexcusable.
When Colin Campbell was asked if he agreed with upping the number of these types of games in the future, he maintained that 2 per year is enough. Probably the most intelligent thing that I’ve heard him utter in ages.
But here’s food for thought. Instead of robbing teams of the fair opportunity to win two competitive points in the future, why not make these outdoor games promotional. Or better yet, have only one, and make it the All Star Game. That way everybody wins.