Take the Roof Off

In its natural element, hockey is a very short-term game. In the mind’s eye, Canadian winters are magnified to epic proportions, as though they bled on year after year like the decade-long freezes of Westeros. In real life, though, even in the parts of the world that have the climate for the game, that climate only holds steady for three or four months at a time. For most of the Canadian population, living low along the south border, hockey played on natural ice is of necessity an irregular thing. It gets more so every year, as we look at the forecasts and grumble louder and louder about global warming, but the truth is that even in our grandfathers’ classical winters, good ice would come and go, battered by sun and snow, rain and thaws.

A perfect sheet of hard, fast ice is a minor miracle, and nothing in this world could possibly feel so good to play a game on. Hockey dreams of perfect ice, fantasizes about it, fetishizes it, and for a hundred years, thousands of obsessive men and women in backyards, lakes, and arenas have pursued it with holy fervor. Ice-making is a quixotic, difficult art. So it makes a lot of sense that it’s the foundation of hockey, the most quixotic and difficult of games.

No other sport is as dependent on such a mercurial surface, and because of that, no other sport has been so dependent on technology for its evolution. It’s no accident that Michael McKinley called his history of early hockey Putting a Roof on Winter. For the first fifty years of the game, longer even in some markets, the most universal, defining struggle of the sport was the attempt to control an indoor climate to create consistently perfect ice. To take one of nature’s greatest, rarest miracles and make it happen 41 nights a year, on command.

It ain’t easy making indoor ice, especially not in the olden days. Artificial ice-making technology was invented in 1876 and you’d think, being so old, that it’d have been long perfected, but no matter how much coolant you run beneath the surface there’s only so hard you can keep a sheet of frozen water under indoor hockey conditions. Even before spectator comfort was an issue and team presidents prodded arenas to keep T-shirt weather in the stands, the very presence of an audience raises the temperature. In the old buildings, ten thousand bodies wrapped in fur and wool, packed tightly together, smoking cigarettes and exhaling water vapor everywhere could quickly turn the ice into a swamp. Throw in an outside warm snap and half your games end with puddles behind the net, slush in the crease, and everyone skating at 30% for fear of dying like Howie Morenz.

Resolving these challenges has made modern hockey possible, but as the technology improves, so does the game’s determination to push it to its limits. A hundred years ago a hockey season was twelve games plus playoffs, played from December to February. That was all that even the best natural ice rinks of Ottawa and Quebec would allow. As artificial ice plants come in, owners begin to spread the game out, forcing hockey to take up more space and more time. Artificial ice allowed hockey to move into Pittsburgh, to New York, to British Columbia, but more than that, it allowed hockey to move into April. In the hope of making more money, for years the NHL would extend the season a little more every year, pushing the Stanley Cup final right up to the point when the ice would become totally unskatable. Ironically, for a generation hockey awarded its greatest trophy on the strength of some of its worst foggy, puddly, damp games.

Somewhere in this evolution, a compromise emerged, and the standards for ice quality changed. The NHL gave up on trying to reproduce the perfection of the best natural ice. Even in the best modern arenas, the ice is soft by northern-lake-in-January standards, but it is has achieved the virtue of consistency that is only possible indoors. But something was lost in that too. In resolving the difficulties of indoor ice, NHL hockey also eliminated both the challenges and the awesomeness of outdoor ice. It became a fishtank game, a greenhouse sport, something that can only be played in a little specialty bubble. It turned a little bit more alien. Or maybe just a little bit less human.

Mostly we’re happy with that. The compromise wouldn’t have been reached if it wasn’t generally accepted by most people. Modern players pay lip service to the joys of pond shinny, but most of them came up playing almost entirely on sheets of standardized indoor ice, and that’s where they feel most comfortable. Fans might wax nostalgic about small town rinks with wood benches and no heat, but really, we like being warm when we watch. Everyone in the 21st century is like 90% happy with the climate and conditions of indoor arena hockey.

But there’s a feeling that comes up every now and then, especially in Canada, especially in the dead of winter, that something has been lost. Something about the miracle of a perfect expanse of ice and the badassery of playing outdoors in brutal cold and watching with nothing but a thick scarf and a flask to keep you warm. No one really wants to go back to that, not all the time anyway, but… almost everyone in hockey wants to taste a bit of it now and then. Or at least to spend some time remembering it.

Which is what the Heritage Classic in 2003 was for.

The Heritage Classic, between the Candiens and the Oilers, outside in Edmonton, was the conceptual progenitor of the Winter Classic, but wasn’t quite the same. The Winter Classic is a different beast. No matter what Americans tell you, there is very little outdoor shinny culture anywhere in the States. We have it in bits and pieces of the high north, it certainly exists, but most of us have never experienced it. It was the advancement of indoor ice technology that made the vast majority of hockey in America possible, and for the vast majority of American hockey fans and players, the indoor game is very nearly everything we’ve ever known. Taking the game outdoors there is more technological marvel than anything else, a wonder of ice-making genius. As it approaches, we obsessively track the weather reports, wondering how they’ll defeat the twin challenges of rain and sun to create ice where there should be mud. It’s kind of the Bill Hickock Wild West Show of hockey- a showy recreation of a distant cultural practice for the benefit of those who’ve heard the legends but seldom gotten to experience much of them.

The 2003 Heritage Classic, though, was very much about memory. Individual memories of the Oilers dynasty and of playing outside as kids somehow mashed into one touching thing, but collective memory too. In Western Canada, more than the East, competitive outdoor hockey was a major part of the cultural landscape for a long time. Eastern hockey grew up playing indoors for most of its big events, but it seems as though in the West the early days were prevalently outdoor games, even at the highest levels . When the Western Canadian stars of the Original Six era and before came up, they would have played for trophies on natural outdoor ice. I haven’t been to Alberta, so maybe I should not say for certain, but it seems as though there deep cultural resonances to serious outdoor hockey there, for players and spectators alike.

It was madly cold. 30 below with the wind chill (that’s -22 for my fellow Americans), cold enough that the teams would have been within their rights ask that the game be canceled altogether. They went through with it consensually, either out of pure childlike enthusiasm or prove-themselves-against-the-elements machismo. Probably a little of both.

The broadcast is a chronicle of what happens to ice, to gear, to bodies when they’re many degrees beyond frozen. NHL pucks are designed to function optimally at ten degrees. Colder than that, they’re less happy to lie flat, more eager to take to their edges and wobble eccentrically along the ice. The sweat gets into the gloves and freezes there, stiffening fingers around sticks, forcing players to trade them out for heated replacements. All the skaters seem a little stiffer than usual around the joints, not quite getting so low into their strides and turns, either from shivering or from multiple layers of underwear. The ice is so cold it’s transcended the ‘good’ stage of natural ice and gone bad again. It’s brittle, prone to cracking. Even a gentle stop sends up a high puff of snow.

Maybe it’s the cold, maybe it’s the darkness, but there’s something lonely about this game. 57000 fans, but they’re far away, voices muffled by scarves and ski masks, and what of their noise reaches the ice could be mistaken for the angry roar of wind, the plaintive hoots and wild howls of night animals. Late in the game, the arena tries to get a round of We Will Rock You going, but the familiar slap-slap-clap is muted to a puff-puff-thuff by a hundred thousand thick mittens. On the bench, the trainers huddle down in toques and thick coats, their eyes peering out over collars zipped high against the wind, looking like cartoon spies. Gary Bettman is here, in black coat so thick it makes him almost spherical. Steam rises from the heaters on the benches in great white plumes like from an old-time railway train, and every player’s breath is like the tiny smokestack of a very small factory.

The crowd sounds very soft, and even the announcers are a little subdued, but the noise of the ice is loud. You’ve never heard televised skate sounds so immediate, so harsh. Ten overlapping strides combine to create a wall of white noise that contains countless ever-shifting variations, hisses overlaid with growls hiding behind shushes and clacks. The only other sound is the players shouting, single deep syllables over the roar. It’s beautiful, in that way that ugliness filtered through chaos starts to sound like something more.

It isn’t shinny, but it sounds like it. Not quite the carefree childhood Sunday afternoon shinny look that the Winter Classic goes for, but the care-fleeing shinny of thirty year old guys picking up the late-night slot on the outdoor rink, the kind that comes cheap with beer thrown in. I swear once I even heard a laugh.

Like that shinny, it’s not great hockey, but it’s not great in a different way. If outdoor shinny is the hockey where a player might try anything, this is the game where nobody hardly tries nothing. Battling frozen toes, errant pucks, wild boards, and crackling ice, the tactics devolve rapidly. There are no ambitions in the Heritage Classic, other than maybe putting some shots on the net. The passes are short, pucks chipped behind the defense rather than deked around them. Lots of dump-ins, lots of clogging the neutral zone, guys lined up four across the blue line. It’s not great hockey, but then again, these editions of the Habs and Oilers weren’t exactly great teams.

And at the end, when it’s all over, the announcers barely have a moment for the result. They don’t care. They just compliment everyone for doing it at all, for coming out and playing in the dark and the cold. The outdoor games are the only games I’ve ever seen in professional hockey where, when someone says that winning and losing don’t matter, I believe them.

This is the big criticism of the various Classics, the one Red “Everything Sucks” Fisher pointed out when the Canadiens did it again in 2011: it’s not fair to have real points on the line for a game that people basically treat as a novelty event. When so many unpredictable factors of weather and ice conditions might force differences in play that affect the outcome, and so few of the spectators really care about the result anyway, should there really be fractions of playoffs on the line for the teams involved? And in some way, that’s reasonable. When we watch a Winter Classic or a Heritage Classic, we treat it as a one-off event, something exciting because it exists rather than because of what happens. All we want from it is to see some cool shit- a few artsy shots of players skating through snow or rain, a couple of fun plays, scenes redolent of our individual memories of pond hockey with friends or collective memories of frostbitten, grain-alcohol soaked prairie championships. Could we not fulfill these desires just as well, maybe better, with a free-wheeling, All-Star Gameish exercise, with nothing on the line but style points and bragging rights?

Maybe. It’d be interesting to try, anyway, to take away the motive for dumping and trapping, turn the puddles and cracks into lazily avoidable obstacles rather than potentially ankle-snapping hazards. But it’d be hard to work in yet another pointless game in the middle of season, and the Heritage Classic could never be a September event in any densely populated part of the world. And anyway, it’s better if it counts for something, even if that something is only a measly 2-3 points. Because those frigid, brutal Saskatchewan championships in 1906 counted for something, even if we can’t remember exactly what. And because those late-night beer shinny games count too, even though we’d never, out loud anyway, admit exactly how much.