The first time I had ever heard of those NHL Winter Classic games I thought it was a pretty nifty idea. Then I saw one of the annual events on television and the (very) cold, hard reality of what it must be like to actually attend an outdoor hockey game in a massive football stadium became immediately apparent. Stuck outside for several hours in the dead of winter, sitting farther away from the ice than you could ever get in a standard hockey arena, watching half-frozen hockey players chasing a puck that could very well be slowed down considerably by the cold rain and snow, and all of it at a radically inflated price? You won’t be seeing me shell out for such an atrocity, I thought smugly…no way!
But you must know by now how much of a sucker for spectacle I am – I sure wish I did – and of course when the National Hockey League announced that the Ottawa Senators would be marking the 100th anniversary of the first ever NHL game by taking on the Montreal Canadians at Lansdowne Park you know I bought a pair of tickets the moment they went on sale. And given that nobody I knew was as crazy as I was m’lady and I ended up giving my extra ticket to her brother-in-law for his fiftieth birthday.
Which meant he had to go. And so did I. Despite the fact that shortly after I purchased the tickets I discovered that the game would cause me to miss the annual Westboro Christmas potluck gift-exchange party for the first time since it’s inception almost two decades before.
To make matters worse, December 16th, 2017 was forecast to be one of the coldest days of the winter, with temperatures set to hang steady near -30 Celsius with the wind chill. Ironically the sun shone all afternoon and warmed things up to a fairly pleasant day, but when darkness settled in around 5pm the mercury plummeted.
Fairly undaunted, I put on two thick pairs of socks, two pairs of long johns underneath a pair pf jeans and my snowboarding pants, a Senators t-shirt beneath a Senators sweatshirt beneath a Senators jersey beneath my hooded snowboarding jacket, a warm toque, a pair of heavy-duty snowboarding mitts and my winter boots and dressed like a Nordic astronaut I walked a mile to the stadium.
I expected to arrive early but I was confronted by a forty minute delay by the horribly organized security line. I made it onto the grounds just as a fighter jet blasted overhead to mark the start of the game* with a stunning flyby, its afterburners glowing in the darkened sky overhead.
“Cool,” I gasped, and after a quick stop for a couple of near-frozen Molson Canadians I found my way to my seat, having miraculously missed just the first play of the game. Unfortunately, m’lady’s bro-in-law didn’t fare as well, joining me about a dozen minutes into the first period. He was fuming about the security line as he took his seat but he cooled down considerably when I handed him the very frosty beer that I had somehow managed to save for him.
I guess the act of simply sitting down probably helped to cool him down as well; I know it did for me. Y’see, our seats were in the end zone, on temporary bleachers that had been set up to boost the venue capacity. And these bleachers were made of aluminum.
Very, very cold aluminum.
Even through the many layers I had on, as soon as my butt touched my seat it burned with a searing, torturous cold. And of course everybody sits down at a hockey game; if you’re not in the last row there is positively no standing up. Oh, it was painful! Near the end of the period I got the idea to put the handwarmers I had brought with me into my back pockets. M’brother-in-law thought that was quite brilliant and did the same. It didn’t help at all but I felt clever all the same.
We got a few more beers at the period break and relished standing up for eighteen minutes. During the next period break I got another look of admiration as I pulled a couple of airplane bottles out of my pocket and handed one to my companion. A quick shot of whisky not only warmed our innards momentarily, but it also helped numb our brains for Bryan Adams’ three-song miniset that was accompanied by embarrassing audience instructions on the big screen (“Wave your arms!” “Take out your free lanyard now and turn it on” “Sway back and forth at the next chorus**”).
By the third period it was clear that the players on the bench were just as cold – okay, even colder – than we were up in the stands. Really, we were 29,000 frozen popsicles watching a handful of other frozen popsicles trying to shoot a frozen popsicle past a couple of frozen popsicles into a frozen popsicle net, and the whole time I knew I was missing my favourite party of the year, where all my friends were laughing and exchanging gifts surrounded by plenty of delicious food and a warm, toasty fire.
And yet somehow I had a really great time. I don’t know why, but despite all of it’s obvious shortcomings the NHL100 Winter Classic was hands-down an all-around fantastic time. The crowd was excited, we were all in this unique, harsh environment together, the Sens won the game 3-0, and most importantly, it felt great when it was finally over***.
Now, would I do it again? Are you crazy? Not on your life.
*What is the difference between a “game” and a “sport”? Is Monopoly a sport? How about hopscotch? Is speed-skating a game? I guess it is when it happens at the Olympic Games. And how is it that a sport like hockey is invariably referred to as a “hockey game”?
**No kidding, the big screen actually said this.
***Hard to believe I capped off the three-hour stint in such weather with a slow, mile-long walk home, but I did.