CALGARY – Hal Gill wanted to know why his hair was freezing, Jarome Iginla felt overdressed and Mike Cammalleri discovered the sweet spot on the boards during Saturday’s practices for the Tim Hortons Heritage Classic outdoor game.
The visiting Montreal Canadiens got on the ice first at McMahon Stadium just before noon, followed by the Flames in the afternoon. The two clubs meet Sunday (CBC, RDS, pre-game 5 p.m. ET) in the first Heritage Classic played since 2003 in Edmonton.
The Flames and Habs had sensory overload the moment they stepped on the ice at McMahon. The glare of the sun off the ice prompted many to smear black under their eyes or put black tape there. Shooters had to adjust to seeing blue sky and open space behind the net.
It was a brilliantly sunny day, but cold as the temperature peaked at -15 C. The Flames and Habs tested different underwear, gloves and headwear to see what would work for Sunday’s game.
Many donned the hoods under their helmets that football players also wear in frigid temperatures, although Cammalleri complained his created frost on his visor. The Habs also had chicken soup at their bench.
Then there was the ice, which received general approval. The players’ blades made an unfamiliar groaning sound on the cold-baked surface, instead of the whoosh normally heard indoors.
“Awesome, huh?” said Gill, a Canadiens assistant captain.
There were smiles all around as the players and coaches soaked up the novelty of skating outside on a crisp, sunny day. Flames defenceman Robyn Regehr, from Rosthern, Sask., wore a Saskatchewan Roughriders hat during his warmup skate.
The players won’t be as loose Sunday when there’s a precious two points on the line. Calgary (30-22-8) is scrambling for a playoff berth in the Western Conference, while Montreal (31-21-7) is battling Boston for the Northwest Division lead.
“Tomorrow, we’re going to forget about the whole magic of this thing and it’s going to be game on,” Montreal defenceman Alex Picard predicted.
Environment Canada’s forecast for Sunday’s game has been constantly changing, but as of Saturday, the expected high was -9 C with some clouds. If that’s the case, Iginla will reduce the insulation under his jersey.
“Probably not a lot different than a normal game,” the Flames captain said. “I was probably wearing a little bit too much today and would feel restricted and hot.”
As they would in any road arena, the players shot the puck off the boards and glass to get a feel for where the rebounds would go.
“There was one spot, I noticed, the puck jumped out in front of the net,” Cammalleri bragged. “I won’t say where and hopefully it happens tomorrow for us.”
The Heritage Classic has also created competition between players over who is the hardiest in the cold. Alaskan Scott Gomez refused to wear the extra clothes and mercilessly teased Canadiens teammates who did.
“I look at some of my Canadian friends out there and they were the ones that were wrapped up the most,” he crowed. “Ryan White should be embarrassed about himself. He’s from Brandon.
“The other day, we walked home from a restaurant and I couldn’t believe it. Then when we got out on the ice, I couldn’t believe how much stuff those guys had on. Travis Moen, all these farmer stories, I don’t even know what to believe anymore. That guy was wrapped up more than anyone.”
Gill didn’t wear a hood under his helmet, but then didn’t like the crunchy consistency of his hair.
“I don’t like that stuff under my helmet,” he declared. “If it gets colder, maybe that’s an option.”
The skaters will be the warmest people at McMahon on Sunday as they’ll work up a sweat during their shifts and then return to their heated benches. The more stationary goaltenders may feel as chilly as the expected 40,000 spectators, which Montreal’s Carey Price doesn’t believe is quite fair.
“That’s a nice little seat warmer they have. They’re pampered,” Price said. “I might have to sneak there for a few TV timeouts.”
With just one day to get a feel for the outdoor arena, both clubs are prepared to wing it Sunday and take whatever the day and the weather brings.
“You get ready to work hard and go at it because there’s no real preparations you can do,” Iginla pointed out. “It’s so different than a regular NHL indoor game.”
Cammalleri is expected to play his first game Sunday after a month healing a separated shoulder. Gill should also be in the lineup after sitting out four games with an upper body injury.
Defenceman James Wisniewski skated Saturday despite taking a puck in the cheekbone Thursday in Edmonton. Montreal head coach Jacques Martin said there “is a good possibility” Wisniewski will play in the Heritage Classic.