Frigid winds but warm reception from Sask. fans at Heritage Classic
Winnipeg Jets and Calgary Flames are set to square off at Mosaic Stadium Saturday night
Wind and cold weather have rolled into Regina, along with Saturday's NHL Heritage Classic.
But National Hockey League commissioner Gary Bettman says the response from fans in Regina — which doesn't have an NHL team of its own — has been warm.
"The reception here has been phenomenal," Bettman said Friday.
"There are great hockey fans here. Hockey is alive and well at all levels of the game, and so for us, it's an honour to be here to share the game with fans who might not as frequently get to see our game."
Saturday evening's match between the Calgary Flames and the Winnipeg Jets at Regina's Mosaic Stadium will be the NHL's 28th outdoor game since 2003, and the ninth in the past three years.
The outdoor match is not only a rare chance for Saskatchewan to see NHL action, but also a rarity for a regular season game — and weather will almost certainly be a factor.
The temperature for the 8:00 p.m. CST puck drop is forecast to be –4 C, with a windchill of –13, according to Environment Canada. Saskatchewan's own Jess Moskaluke and Hunter Brothers will take part in the opening festivities and, at the first intermission, The Sheepdogs will take the stage.
For fans willing to brave the chilly temperatures, activities and entertainment will be offered leading up to the game, from 1 p.m .to 7 p.m. at Confederation Park. Admission to the pre-game events is free.
'Very much a Grey Cup feel'
Doug Barrett was among those brave fans — and he's not even from Saskatchewan.
He made his way to Regina from Sherwood Park, Alta. — just outside Edmonton — for the game. Though his beloved Oilers aren't playing, he said the environment and the fandom encouraged him to make the trip.
Three years ago, Barrett and his wife made an even longer trip for the Heritage Classic in Winnipeg.
"It's such an amazing event that we had to come back," he said.
"It's very much a Grey Cup feel to the event," said Barrett. "You all have your own jersey on, but it's the event, it's the camaraderie. Life is good."
Since his brother-in-law is a die-hard Jets fan — and since someone who cheers for the Oilers would never cheer for the Flames — he said he and his family will be rooting for Winnipeg.
Also cheering the Jets will be Wayne and Andrew Brown, brothers from Winnipeg who grew up playing hockey. Playing out in the elements might mean less-than-ideal ice conditions for professional players, plus chilly fans, but the Brown brothers say they feel the event takes the game back to its roots.
"We didn't play hockey indoors," said Andrew. "We played on the outdoors rinks. you know, dads would shovel in between periods to get the snow off the ice."
For Nelson Hackewich and his father, Lance Hackewich, their team wasn't even playing, but the local Regina hockey fans still wanted to come out. They too have fond memories of playing Canada's game out doors.
"We'd always play at the outdoor rink all the time. We'd play pick-up hockey with our buds; and I mean these guys out here, they're pros, but they're no different," said Nelson.
The elder Hackewich said while his son was growing up, there would often be a rink in their backyard, even if the ground wasn't completely flat.
Lonny Evans, meanwhile, will be cheering on the Flames. The Regina man is looking forward to the relatively short commute to see his team take to the ice Saturday night. He usually travels to Calgary — a roughly 750-kilometre drive — two or three times a year for NHL games.
"I'm going to enjoy actually only having to drive 10 minutes instead of seven and a half hours," he said.
He says when he went to a game earlier this year, he even got a chance to personally thank Ken King, president and CEO of the Calgary Flames, for bringing the game to Regina.
Bettman, who was in town Friday to announce a new scholarship for undergraduate students playing hockey at the University of Regina and University of Saskatchewan, said he was excited to be in the city for the game, and to be in a province where hockey is thriving.
More than 500 NHL players have come from Saskatchewan and close to 30 are currently active in the league, including Tyler Bozak and Jaden Schwartz of the Stanley Cup-winning St. Louis Blues.
But leading up to Saturday night's puck drop, it wasn't clear, he said, which fan base will be best represented at the stadium, between the Jets, the Flames — or the CFL's Saskatchewan Roughriders.
"It'll probably be a third, a third, and a third," said Bettman. "We'll see Jets colours, we'll see Flames colours and we'll see green."