Canadian hockey fans celebrated the predictable end of most COVID-19 restrictions on Sunday, crammed into a football stadium in a raging blizzard to watch the Toronto Maple Leafs and Buffalo Sabers face off in the Heritage Classic.
It would be hard to imagine anything more Canadian than 26,119 fans, mostly Leafs, gathered in a stadium in a gritty steel town on the shores of a windswept Lake Ontario for a party that began with the “Great One” Wayne Gretzky headlining the puck drop ceremony. Located halfway between Toronto and Buffalo, the Hammer, as locals call Hamilton, provided ideal neutral ice for a contest featuring the Maple Leafs battling for the top spot in the Eastern Conference standings and the Sabers struggling to stay out of the basement.
Buffalo on two goals each from Peyton Krebs and Vinnie Hinostroza and a shorthanded tally from Tage Thompson shocked the Leafs 5-2, but as with most of these nostalgic dips in hockey’s outdoor past, the outcome was not as important as the event itself. As Ontario, Canada’s most populous province, moves to remove virtually all public health measures related to COVID-19 in eight days, including mask-wearing requirements, the day also reignited memories of pre-pandemic norms.
The game was played at Tim Horton Stadium, named after Hall of Fame defenseman Tim Horton, who played for Toronto and Buffalo and died in a single car accident in 1974, a decade after opening a donut and a café in Hamilton that has become a Canadian institution with over 4,000 locations in 14 countries. If Gretzky and Tim Horton weren’t enough to stoke Canadian hockey passions, the Maple Leafs won over the locals by arriving for the game in construction overalls paying tribute to the city’s steelworkers.
The NHL played its first regular season outdoor game in 2003 and despite rave reviews, it resisted the temptation to franchise the showcase. But what started as a one-time tribute to hockey’s past have become key dates on the NHL calendar. “We’re always trying to create a unique experience for the market,” Laurie Kepron, senior vice president of marketing for NHL partnerships, told Reuters. “We take the flavor from the local market, and then through our partnerships and showcasing the game, we amplify it.”
Games were held at iconic ball parks such as Chicago’s Wrigley Field and Boston’s Fenway Park. They were played in the bitter cold of Edmonton and the heat of Los Angeles.
The nostalgia and allure of being part of something unique drew huge crowds, including an NHL record 105,000 at Michigan Stadium in 2014 when last year there were no spectators for two games played in Lake Tahoe due to COVID-19 restrictions. The 35 outdoor games generated a total attendance of over 1.7 million people.
“We’re driven by the change in what we offer,” Kepron said. “Each time, we ask our partners to think about creating unique experiences. ‘How can we offer something different to the fans?’
(This story has not been edited by the Devdiscourse team and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)