While the Montreal Canadiens and Calgary Flames prepared for their outdoor game at McMahon Stadium in the 2011 version of the NHL’s Heritage Classic, the city of Calgary hosted a very special family reunion on Friday and Saturday. NHL Alumni members from the 1986 and 1989 Stanley Cup Finals gathered to reminisce, share a tall tale or two, and lace up their skates once again for a very special rematch.
The Montreal Canadiens Alumni skated away with a 5-3 victory on the cold February day, but there is little doubt that the fans in attendance went home with a warm feeling, having had the opportunity to watch the greatest team in Flames history take to the ice one more time. Enjoying every moment during the festivities was Hall of Fame member and captain of the 1989 Stanley Cup champions, Lanny McDonald.
“It was unbelievable,” McDonald said proudly. “To be able to renew old acquaintances and to have that much fun together, it was so special – for our team and their team. We dressed at the Saddledome and went up to McMahon Stadium. The Montreal team and our team rode on the same bus, so we were trash talking each other the whole way up. It was a great weekend; it was just a good time all the way around.”
“To have guys like Al MacInnins, Gary Roberts and Joe Nieuwendyk together again. Jiri Hrdina came all the way from the Czech Republic, Ric Natress came in from Ontario and to have Mike Vernon come out of retirement and play nets, it was really something! It was a fun time hanging out with friends that you have gone to war with.”
The outdoor rink at McMahon Stadium built especially for the Heritage Classic events provided a unique backdrop for the reunion. Normally the home of the Canadian Football League’s Calgary Stampeders, McMahon was a sea of red and yellow for the entire weekend. Despite the frigid temperatures, it was a tremendous experience for all involved.
“It really was tremendous,” said McDonald. “To play in front of 12,000 people at McMahon and then the next day to see over 40,000 people there; the NHL and the Calgary Flames did a great job of transforming the building into a hockey stadium.”
Leading up to these types of outdoor events, the discussion always revolves around the weather and the ice conditions. While things warmed up slightly for Sunday’s NHL game, the Alumni played in temperatures that hovered near -15 Celsius. Regardless of the conditions, the hockey instincts took over when the puck dropped.
“The instincts do take over, but they did a great job in transforming the ice from a very challenging ice for the Alumni game, to twenty-four hours later, being able to play the big game and ensure that no one got hurt. It was outstanding. While the temperatures for the Alumni game were like, -15 or -16, thankfully it warmed up a little bit too, it was about -8 or -9 for the real game, so that obviously helped the ice.”
While the Alumni game had many special moments, the spotlight was on McDonald during the second period when the Flames were awarded a penalty shot. The ice conditions became a factor, as all in attendance and those viewing at home held their collective breath as the puck began to roll off McDonald’s stick. We were worried, was he worried?
“I could not get that puck to settle down,” he said with a laugh. “As soon as I picked it up, it started jumping all over the place and I was worried it was going to jump over the back of my stick and I wouldn’t be able to get it back.”
“To start with, I was going top shelf to make it look really good, but the closer I got to the net, I thought – I’ve just got to find a spot and try to shoot it there while it’s jumping around. The puck finally settled down and I took a quick peek and the 5-hole was open, so I hammered a wrist shot as hard as I could through the 5-hole; I was pretty happy!”
The Flames Alumni also welcomed a new member for the game at the Heritage Classic. The recently retired Craig Conroy joined the legendary ‘89 Flames and for the first time in many years, found himself as the “rookie” on the team.
“We were not only giving it to him for being the rookie, we were like, ‘Come on Conny, you’re the youngest guy here, you’ve got to score at least three goals!’ If he had a hat trick, we would have won the game 6-5. So, yeah, we were giving it to him pretty good. That’s what being part of the Alumni is all about.”
While hockey fans across Canada enjoyed the Alumni game at the 2011 edition of the Heritage Classic, there is no doubt the legendary players involved enjoyed it just as much – perhaps even a little more.
For more information on the NHL Alumni Association and its members, visit their website: NHL Alumni
Andrew Rodger is an independent sports columnist and member of the Canadian Association of Journalists. Along with operating The Voice of Sport, he covers the Ottawa Senators and writes the “Ask the Alumni” series here at The Hockey Writers. He is the resident writer for the NHL Alumni Association and a contributor on CBC News Now.