CALGARY – Mother Nature is treating the NHL’s second outdoor game this season much kinder than the first.
Warm, damp conditions forced the league to push the Winter Classic at Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field on Jan. 1 from an afternoon to an evening start in an attempt to avoid the rain. The game was rained on anyway.
There will be no such sogginess Sunday in the Tim Horton’s NHL Heritage Classic between the Calgary Flames and Montreal Canadiens at McMahon Stadium (CBC, RDS, Versus, pre-game 5 p.m. ET).
Temperatures in Calgary steadily dropped over the last week to minus-20 on Thursday morning, providing the NHL’s Dan Craig with the ideal conditions to create two inches of ice on McMahon’s field.
A few flurries Thursday night and continuing cold into the weekend was Environment Canada’s prediction. But the cold snap is forecasted to end in time for Sunday’s game, with temperatures rising to a more spectator-friendly high of minus-one, with clear skies and a light breeze out of the south.
“That’s what we want,” Craig said.
If the forecast holds, the Heritage Classic in Calgary will feel more comfortable for both spectators and players than the previous one in Edmonton in 2003, when a wind chill of minus-30 prompted then-Habs goaltender Jose Theodore to pull a tuque over his helmet.
Frigid temperatures aren’t ideal for ice as it can turn brittle, but Craig is combating that in Calgary with a heat line to the ice to keep the base at an even minus-10.
“We have an in-line heater. We didn’t need it in Pittsburgh,” Craig said.
McMahon Stadium has been a hive of activity since Craig’s refrigeration truck arrived late last week. As of Thursday, the ice was installed, the rinkboards erected and glass installation was underway. Stadium crews blew a dusting of snow off seats and continued the work of placing cushions on all 42,000 of them.
The parking lot to the east of the stadium was dotted with white tents creating a festival area covering 8,100 square metres. A few people were inspecting souvenirs two hours after the merchandise store opened.
The NHL’s vice-president of marketing warned Thursday against buying counterfeit Heritage Classic merchandise that is already on the market.
“The easiest way to protect yourself is to buy from a reliable source,” Brian Jennings said. “If (the price) is too good to be true, it’s too good to be true.”
The Flames and Habs are scheduled to practise Friday at Scotiabank Saddledome before shifting to McMahon for Saturday’s practices, which will be followed by an alumni game between the two clubs.
The Flames will move into the Calgary Stampeders’ dressing room, renovated early last year to make it more spacious and posh. The Canadiens will have to contend with the more cramped conditions of the visiting CFL team’s locker-room.
Calgary’s recent revival on the ice is directly linked to the building buzz around the Heritage Classic. Just seven weeks ago, making the playoffs seemed like a pipe dream for a team sitting second-last in the Western Conference.
A 14-4-5 record since general manager Darryl Sutter resigned Dec. 28 boosted the Flames (30-22-8) into a five-way tie for fourth place Thursday.
Flames Nation believes in their team again. They’ve been wearing yellow and orange Heritage Classic jerseys to games at the Saddledome in recent weeks. About 16,000 of the 22,000 Heritage Classic jerseys sold have been to Flames fans, according to Jennings.
Tickets to the Heritage Classic were still available Thursday from the official on-line seller Ticketmaster.
Amid the hoopla for the outdoor game is two points precious to both clubs. Montreal was sixth in the Eastern conference (31-20-7) heading into Thursday’s game against Edmonton.
“No matter what game it is from here on out, we know that all of these points are huge,” Flames forward David Moss said. “I think the guys will take in the experience, too, but I think once you are on the ice and once the puck drops, we are fighting for those two points.”