MONTREAL – Jarome Iginla feels the Calgary Flames could have no more fitting opponent for the Heritage Classic outdoor game on Feb. 20 than the storied Montreal Canadiens.
While some feel the big stage of a 40,000-seat McMahon Stadium would be better saved for a Battle of Alberta matchup with the Edmonton Oilers, Iginla likes the idea of facing the 24-time Stanley Cup champions, who are always a big draw in Calgary.
“We see a lot of Edmonton and Vancouver and those games have their own emotions, but fans love to see Montreal and Toronto,” Iginla said Monday as the Flames prepared to face the Canadiens at the Bell Centre. “They love Montreal-Calgary.
“A lot are Calgary fans but they throw on their Montreal jersey for those games. It’ll be a unique experience. Hopefully the weather’s perfect. When we play Montreal, that’s a hot ticket in town. You get more (ticket) requests, there’s more buzz. Toronto’s a big one but for whatever reason, Calgary-Montreal seems to be the biggest.”
Montreal was also the visitor for the NHL’s first Heritage Classic in 2003, which drew 57,167 spectators to Commonwealth Stadium for the Canadiens 4-3 victory over the Oilers.
There hasn’t been another one since, although the NHL has made a huge success of holding outdoor games called the Winter Classic the last four years on New Year’s Day in the United States. This year’s game averaged 4.5 million viewers on NBC, the network’s highest for a regular season NHL game since 1975.
The Winter Classic had the Pittsburgh Penguins play host to the Washington Capitals, two Eastern Conference rivals whose dislike for one another was made clear on the “24/7” series on HBO, which had cameras tracking both teams in the lead-up to the game. The Pens and Caps have been battling for dominance of the conference for the last three seasons and had a memorable second-round playoff series in 2009.
The Canadiens and Flames are in different conferences and play one another twice per season, so their outdoor game will be more about history than hate, not to mention the valuable two points in the standings.
“I don’t know if there’ll be the hatred on the ice and all that, but if you look at the standings now, I know it’s going to be a big game for us,” said Iginla, the Flames captain. “And it’s our first outdoor game, so there’ll be enough incentive without the long-time rivalries and things like that.”
There actually was a quite intense rivalry between Montreal and Calgary in the 1980s. Montreal beat the Flames in the 1986 Stanley Cup final, and Calgary returned the favour in 1989, as Lanny McDonald and his crew became the first visiting team to win a Cup-deciding game at the old Montreal Forum.
For several years after that, the schedule was arranged to have the Canadiens in Calgary on New Year’s Eve.
“If there’s any team that deserves to have an outdoor game it’s Montreal,” said Flames centre Olli Jokinen. “They’re a team with a lot of history, an Original Six team.
“Wherever they go they feel like they’re playing at home. But at the same time, it’s a great chance for us and for fans in Calgary. I don’t know how many seats there will be but a lot of people are able to go. We just have to hope the weather’s not too cold. I hear it’s minus-30 now back in Calgary.”
But in Calgary, one never knows when warm winds will blow in and take temperatures well above freezing, as they did during the 1988 Winter Olympics.
It was bitter cold for the first Heritage Classic in Edmonton, from which the lasting image is of Montreal goaltender Jose Theodore wearing a red, white and blue tuque atop his mask.
To help publicize their game, both the Flames and the Canadiens were to wear Heritage Classic tuques during the warm-up at the Bell Centre.
Coach Brent Sutter said the outdoor game is a fine idea but the Flames have more to think about at the moment as they try to climb into playoff position. Although they have a good record since the end of December, Calgary remains in the bottom three in the Western Conference.
“We have a lot of hockey left from now until then and we have to win some games, get some points,” he said. “We can’t worry about something five weeks down the road.”