This weekend, Winnipeg played host to the 2016 Heritage Classic held right on campus at Investors Group Field (IGF). The Heritage Classic included an alumni game between retired players of both the Winnipeg Jets and Edmonton Oilers on Saturday, and had their regular season game held on Sunday.
The event had a unique dynamic to it, as both the Jets and Oilers used to play in the Smythe division in the 1980s. They played each other numerous times in the playoffs, with the Oilers coming out on top every time. Both teams are now rebuilding with some bright futures ahead of them and will hope to bring the rivalry from days gone by.
Many students were not around for Jets 1.0, to see the likes of Dale Hawerchuk and Wayne Gretzky grace the ice at the old Winnipeg Arena. Saturday allowed for young fans to see the legends their parents raved about. Although they were not in peak physical condition like they were in the glory days, it was a treat to watch.
The alumni game on Saturday sent us back to the days where Twitter and analytics never existed, and reminded us of the times we were out there skating, emulating our favourite hockey heroes.
It was a nostalgic afternoon, as the Jets and Oilers alumni resumed their rivalry, with the Jets skating out onto the ice to the tune of “Jump” by Van Halen. Rousing receptions for the likes of Gretzky, Ryan Smyth, Teemu Selanne, and Hawerchuk rang through the raucous 31,317 fans at IGF as they were introduced.
“The crowd was excellent, it was superb,” Smyth said after the game. “It was a great atmosphere, awesome to see the fan support the Jets have. It’s nice to see hockey back in Winnipeg.”
Gretzky’s first shift was about 30 seconds long, and Smyth looked as if he could still skate with the young guns in the NHL. Selanne was by far the best player on the ice and he got the Jets on the board first, to the delight of the Jets fans after a nifty penalty shot goal.
“It was amazing to see the fans. I’ve always had a great relationship with the fans and people here,” Selanne said. “I knew I was going to score too.”
In typical Jets fashion, they let their large lead slip away, as six-time Stanley Cup champ Mark Messier found his shooting gloves and scored two goals to bring the scores level after two periods of play.
“When I saw Mess go out and score two goals like he did, I was thinking he could still play out there,” Gretzky said laughing.
As if it was scripted, a day after receiving the key to Winnipeg, Selanne scored the winning goal on a penalty shot to give the Jets alumni a 6-5 win. A scoreline that makes it look like it was played in 1986.
Hawerchuk, one of Winnipeg’s most beloved sons, talked about the experience after the game and what it means to Winnipeg to have strong alumni.
“Our fans got what they wanted today,” he said. “I think with any great franchise you need to have strong alumni, and let’s not forget, for 16 years here there were no alumni here.”
Messier summed it up best when he was asked about what the atmosphere was like at IGF on Saturday afternoon.
“The incredible passion that can be found across Canada, doesn’t matter where you go or what rink you stop off at and I think Winnipeg is just another reminder of that,” he said. “Days like today transcends the game into bigger than itself.”
Sunday, sunny Sunday
If Saturday was a blast from the past for many fans, Sunday was an indication of the future, with both the Oilers and Jets trending upwards with some exciting young talents such as Connor McDavid and Patrik Laine.
The Oilers played the spoilers on Sunday, however, as they ran out with a 3-0 win. Not the result the fans would have liked to see on such a special occasion.
“It was nice to get out there and play the game,” Oilers forward Milan Lucic said postgame. “It makes it that much more of an experience when you go out and win the game.”
There was a lengthy delay due to the sun – yes, you read that right: a delay to an outdoor hockey game in Winnipeg because of the sun. NHL organizers did not think Winnipeg was all that sunny, as they pushed puck drop until the sun was lower in the sky.
“I went out before the game and I could tell that the game was probably going to be delayed,” Oilers goalie Cam Talbot said postgame. “It wasn’t out of the realm of possibilities when it did happen.”
When the puck finally dropped, it was a balmy 10 degree October day at IGF, and the two teams were roaring to play as the big hits came early and often in the first period.
With all the stars on the ice for both teams, it was fourth liner Mark Letestu who put the Oilers up 1-0 on a shorthanded breakaway. The Oilers added insult to injury when McDavid got in on a 2-on-1 with Darnell Nurse, who was dashing out of the penalty box and put home a one-timer top shelf over Connor Hellebuyck.
Zack Kassian grabbed his second point of the night after Laine had the puck stripped off of him by Ryan Nugent-Hopkins in the middle of his own end. Benoit Pouliot made a beautiful behind-the-back pass to Kassian, and he made no mistake, firing high short side on Hellebuyck.
The 33,240 fans at IGF grew more subdued as the Oilers were up 3-0 on their hometown Jets after 40 minutes of play. The orange-tinted sky seemed to taunt the Jets fans, as they struggled to mount any type of comeback against the orange-clad team from Edmonton. With five minutes to go, the crowd at IGF started to file for the exits and suddenly the chants of “Go Jets go” turned into “Let’s go Oilers.”
Despite the loss, Jets head coach Paul Maurice hopes that fans and players don’t look back on this event with negativity.
“It was such a spectacular week here,” he said. “Especially for the city of Winnipeg, right from the gala, straight through, lots of enthusiasm, enjoyment, and overall it was a spectacular week and the event of our team, but the game was a tough one.”
Oilers head coach Todd McClellan, coaching his second outdoor game, said that it was a special night for everyone and commended the city for putting on this event.
“Tonight’s a night full of memories for both teams, win or lose,” he said. “You have something you’re going to talk to your kids about, your family. These games are important for the fans, for the league, and for the game in general.”
This weekend was a link to the past that many Jets fans were searching for. For so long, hockey fans in this city have missed their alumni and that connection to the glory days of the first edition of the Jets.