For one day, the NHL can forget the labor uncertainty in its future and the half-empty arenas of its present and savor a romanticized return to its past.
Drawing on a nation's collective memory of skating on prairie ponds and backyard rinks until toes froze or the puck was lost in a snowbank, the Edmonton Oilers and Montreal Canadiens will play an outdoor game -- the NHL's first regular-season outdoor game -- Saturday before what will be a league-record crowd of 56,159 at Edmonton's Commonwealth Stadium. So powerful is its pull that Wayne Gretzky, who has rarely laced up his skates since he retired in 1999, will participate in the Oilers-vs.-Canadiens alumni game that will precede the main event.
Mark Messier, still playing for the Rangers, is expected to join the Oiler alumni in a game that will feature players with a combined 129 Stanley Cup championships.
"We need to do more things to promote this game than perfecting the trap," he joked to New York reporters.
Gretzky agreed. "I'm not a big believer in old-timers' games, but this is going to be unique," he said. "Not only have the country and the NHL rallied around this, but the people of Edmonton are excited about what they're going to accomplish. It's pretty positive for the fans and the NHL and a great chance for all of us to reunite."
Gretzky said the Oiler alumni will shun helmets in favor of toques, those goofy, skull-hugging caps that pull over the ears. That, too, is a return to childhood.
"We all, as kids, grew up in this country where there wasn't a whole lot of structure, in the sense that you went down to a local pond and you jumped into a game of shinny hockey and all five guys or six guys chased around the puck," he said. "We all kind of grew up outdoors. That was kind of the way it was. Kids who grew up in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, all the way to Ontario and Newfoundland, that was their sense of growing up, dreaming of playing in the National Hockey League. And here and now you have an opportunity where guys that played in Edmonton, guys that played in Montreal, are actually going to be out on the ice outdoors."
The games won't be televised in the U.S. but will be available on satellite. The NHL attendance record of 28,183, set April 23, 1996, at Tampa, Fla., for a game between the Lightning and Flyers, will fall, but the record for a hockey game in North America will remain 74,554, set Oct. 10, 2001, for an outdoor game between Michigan and Michigan State in East Lansing.
Eight inches of snow fell late Wednesday and early Thursday in Edmonton, where officials began preparing the ice more than a week ago. The football field was leveled and 65 truckloads of sand were brought in to cover pipes used to freeze the 1,200 gallons of water.
The ice will be tested today, when the present-day Oilers and Canadiens are scheduled to practice. Temperatures on Saturday are expected to range from -20 to -10 Celsius (-4 to 14 above Fahrenheit). Provisions were made to play Sunday at Skyreach Centre if the weather is too harsh, but NHL and team spokesmen wouldn't specify the temperature or snowfall level that would trigger a move.
Players are simply adapting, although with some reservations.
"We've been experimenting with different kinds of long underwear," Joe Juneau of the Canadiens told the Montreal Gazette.
"I think it's a great idea, but I think it would have been better if they did it for an exhibition game. There are two points on the line and nobody knows what effect the weather is going to have on the game."
However, teammate Sheldon Souray expects this to surpass the outdoor games he played as a child in Edmonton.
"This time around, I won't have to shovel the snow off the ice," he said.
The players' benches will be heated, as will some VIP seats. Otherwise, the experience will test fans' fleece jackets and their fortitude, which seemed only to enhance the allure.
Allan Watt, the Oilers' vice president of marketing and communications, said the club got 700,000 requests for the 7,000 tickets available after allotting seats to sponsors and season-ticket holders. Applications came from Finland, Bosnia, Africa and Texas.
"From the time when you're a kid in Canada -- wherever you live in North America where snow flies and you can make a rink, or you go for Christmas and your dad takes you out and he turns you loose and you're gliding on this thing, there's some magic in that," Watt said. "The thought of seeing multi-millionaire hockey players skating around outside playing for real points has captured something, and that's about as simple as I could put it."
It has captured imaginations to the point where Gretzky's mother, Phyllis, broke her rule of never asking her son for tickets.
"It just shows you how important and how strong the game of hockey really is in places like Edmonton, Calgary and Ottawa," he said. "The history of our game -- we just can't afford to lose these franchises. When people talk about those cities, it's imperative that the history of our game stays intact and these franchises flourish ....
"And from a personal point of view, my family and friends, a lot of people that I know, never saw me in an Oiler uniform," added Gretzky, whose five children were born after the Oilers traded him to the Kings in 1988. "I just thought that probably it was only fitting that I play one more time or one more game and my kids had an opportunity to see me in an Oiler uniform."