In the year Prior to joining the Edmonton Oilers as team president in 2000, Patrick LaForge spent nearly two decades of his professional career working for Molson Brewery. Regardless of the title, and there were a few on the way, Laforge will tell you that his main job was always to sell beer.
Laforge was involved in beer consumer research and always asked what beer drinkers were interested in.
“One of the things that came to me and shocked me is that NHL players love to see them play flashy — hockey outdoors, just like kids.”
Outdoor hockey, at its heart, is both the beginning and essence of the sport for some, and on Sunday, the NHL will play its 38th regular season game.
It’s scheduled at Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium and this time marks the 20th anniversary of the league’s daring to hold a regular-season game outdoors.
Currently, the league schedules several Heritage Classics, Winter Classics and Stadium Series games each year. The first, between the Oilers and Montreal Canadiens, was played in sub-zero temperatures at the home of the CFL team. The most recent was played last February in Raleigh, NC – the temperature during the game was above freezing.
From a marketing perspective, outdoor games have been one of the NHL’s biggest success stories. But lost in the growing history of the outdoor game is that it didn’t start as an NHL initiative.
It was the brainchild of one organization, the Oilers, and was largely concocted by LaForge, owner Cal Nichols, public relations executive Alan Watt, and a handful of other Oilers front office personnel. The three players came up with the idea on a flight home after watching the 2002 All-Star Game in Los Angeles.
Frustrated that the NHL could hold the All-Star Game without any alumni — including a famous former King and former Oiler player who lived in LA at the time — LaForge thought his organization could do better. The Oilers also had a 25th anniversary.
Along with that, what if they could play the alumni game away from home, featuring the greats of their era who helped build the mid-1980s dynasty?
From that initial idea, their ambitions began to grow. Logically, if you’ve gone to the trouble of installing outdoor ice for an alumni game, why not simply add a doubleheader schedule and a regular NHL game as the cherry on top?
Laforge, a little dreamer, thought it was possible.
Many others — including NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NHL executive Bob Goodnow — had to be convinced.
LaForge emphasized that while the NHL had no active opposition to the plan, it was in no rush to adopt it either. A practical businessman, LaForge also had a second goal: The gate receipts generated by an outdoor game, drawing fans from around the world who pay high prices to attend, in a space three times the size of a regular stadium, could help the Oilers. In money when red blood flows.
In the year In 2003, the NHL had no salary cap and the Canadian dollar was trading at 63 cents to the US dollar.
Two small-market teams, the Quebec Nordiques and the Winnipeg Jets, moved to the U.S. The other two, Edmonton and the Calgary Flames, were on life support. Only 10 months after the first outdoor game was played, the NHL locked out the players for the entire season to negotiate a tough salary cap.
Tensions between the league and the NHLPA escalated as LaForge prepared to convince all relevant parties.
Most memories of the game revolve around the cold – officially minus 18 degrees Celsius during the game. Canadiens goaltender Jose Theodore took to the ice wearing a helmet that became one of the game’s most enduring images. The alumni game in the afternoon was a dry run for the actual game in the evening. Most of the spectators sat for more than five hours in the freezing weather to witness both.
Twenty years later, most people have forgotten or don’t know how the original came to be.
According to Laforge, the reason was that “so much of the story wasn’t told because there was so much going on behind the scenes at the time.” There have been many dynamic changes in the market place. We lost Doug Weight and Bill Guerin in Dallas. They went to get $10 million while we paid them $2 million. I understand. I move what I do about five times. But it was a challenge for small market clubs like us.
And while the potential for financial windfalls was part of the push for the outdoor play, LaForge and company’s main motivation was to put on a show. That’s why when it came time to settle on a venue, LaForge first thought of playing at the picturesque Lake Louise in the heart of the Canadian Rockies. LaForge previously served as Alpine Canada’s president and CEO and saw how every year downhill Brian Stemle played an informal outdoor hockey game at Lake Louise for the World Cup skiers.
At first, LaForge thought he could do a made-for-TV event with a thousand fans in Lake Louise. But he consulted some engineers and was told that 1,000 people were sitting on bleachers at the bottom of the lake.
Not a good idea. And it is not profitable.
Wanting to lend support to his idea, LaForge turned to Oilers general manager Kevin Lowe and asked to meet with Wayne Gretzky, hoping his support could tip the negotiating scales in the Oilers’ favor.
“Wayne happened to be shooting a commercial one day in Edmonton. I made my vote: away game, Oilers against someone. And Wayne said: ‘Sure, I like the idea. What do you want us to do?’ I said, ‘I’m going to use your name first. If someone calls you, I want to say you’re inside.’ We don’t do anything to anyone.
“I had no idea how powerful the Wayne name was until you actually used it. That got the ball rolling.
From there, LaForge set up a meeting with the commissioner to see if the league could get in the way. Bettman says he needs permission to use league-registered trademarks and doesn’t want any competing sponsorship issues. They also needed to get “Hockey Night in Canada” on board and make the PA agree.
The latter was not necessarily guaranteed at this sensitive time for a new collective bargaining agreement, which was not good.
Goodenough thought the players would have fun, but wondered about the potential injuries on outdoor ice. But the big hangup doesn’t like to cooperate with the league at those times.
Next was going back to the Oilers’ 36 owners with a financial approach and making sure that building an NHL-sized hockey rink inside a football stadium would actually work.
Once they settled on a place at the Commonwealth Stadium, the next step was to decide on an opponent. His first question was the Rangers because, according to LaForge, that would bring a lot of American media attention. They gave him a flat “no”.
“(Glen Sater) almost hung up on me before I said hello,” LaForge said. “So, I called the Maple Leafs. They weren’t interested either. But the Canadians had an active alumni group and were interested. … Our owners boarded and we left.
Once the Oilers announced plans for the outdoor game, they promised to give every season-ticket holder the option to buy a pair of tickets and open a global lottery to distribute the rest — and then hold a collective organizational breath to see what the response might be. .
“In the end, there were over 700,000 entries from all over the world. … Our knees are knocked out, but it looks like we’re sold.
The main concern as the game approached was the weather. There was concern that it would be too hot and the ice would be unplayable. Instead, the temperature went the other way.
“It was cold beyond belief,” LaForge said. There was uncertainty about playing until game time.
“The players wanted to play. The students were definitely going to play,” LaForge said. “The seats are heated. In fact, they often asked to turn off the heaters because they were so hot. … The fans were tested. Beer was freezing in beer mugs. Getting to the washrooms with six or seven clothes was a challenge. That wasn’t pretty. But the stadium was full. People were there for an average of five hours – and it was cold for five hours.
LaForge plans to attend Sunday’s Oilers-Flames game at Commonwealth so he can see for himself the latest iteration of the idea he and his team have come up with.
Ticket prices have roughly quadrupled since the first game 20 years ago, when 57,500 seats were sold for $150, he said. LaForge remembers scalpers selling tickets for $1,500.
“We got money and that helped us in the lockout. We should never have a call for funds through the lock,” LaForge said. “And we created a brand. We made the front page of newspapers around the world, especially in colder climates. And we brought pride and innovation to oil makers. We showed that we’re still alive. We’re not dead.”
Reflecting back on that first game, LaForge is proud to be the first to do so, the memories made and the away games becoming a regular part of the NHL schedule.
“Everybody who went to the game remembers going to the first away game. ‘I’ve been there,’ you might say. And for the players who played it, it scratched the part of the little boy inside them where they played shiny. To see NHL players like Mark Messier and Paul Coffey push the shovel during stoppages in the game to clean the ice off the ice at an alumni game — it brought out the little kid in everyone.
“Sometimes you do something, and you don’t think about the risk. You just focus on the dream. ‘Let’s make it happen. It was once in a lifetime. “
2024 NHL Draft Rankings: McLean Celebrini Leads Corey Pronman’s List
(Top photo of Jose Theodore: Dave Sandford/Getty Images)