CALGARY — A green-clad Cory Sarich occasionally slips into McMahon Stadium to cheer on his beloved Saskatchewan Roughriders.
But the Calgary Flames defenceman is set to rumble out of the tunnel in red and white silks next February at the NHL Winter Classic.
During his Stanley Cup final address in Chicago, sources say NHL commissioner Gary Bettman will Friday confirm a February clash between the Flames and the Montreal Canadiens.
After nearly a year of speculation — and a mystery charge for an unannounced special event levied on renewing Calgary season ticket holders — the NHL is finally ready to commit to making it happen.
“It’s going to be great,” Sarich said Thursday. “I grew up on the farm since I was six or seven, and I spent a lot of time playing hockey on the frozen pond, although we called it a slough, near Bladworth, Saskatchewan.”
This time, Sarich will skate on a frozen field at McMahon Stadium in an NHL tradition launched up the highway in 2003 with the inaugural outdoor game between the Canadiens and the Edmonton Oilers at Commonwealth Stadium.
In other outdoor action next season, Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins will clash with Alexander Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals on New Year’s Day at Heinz Field.
The Calgary game still needs formal approval from the league’s board of governors. A final announcement is expected in July surrounding the release of the schedule.
The exact date for the Calgary game has yet to be determined, but McMahon Stadium manager John Haverstock expects the event to be held on a weekend.
“We had our initial conversations with the league in June of last year,” Haverstock said. “For a while there, it looked 50-50 whether we would have a game in 2010. For whatever reason, the league backed away.
“But we’ve stayed in contact the entire time. And things are really heating up now.”
Organizers can only hope Mother Nature decides to heat things up come February 2011. Born and raised in Saskatchewan, Sarich can handle the bitter chill.
“Yes, I’ve played in the cold,” he said. “But not when it counts.”
The mere thought of stickhandling outside — especially for a defensive defenceman — is enough to make Sarich sweat.
“I just hope it’s not too cold,” he said. “It can have a tendency to get ridiculous cold here. Everybody tells me Calgary has mild winters, but we’ve had some crazy winter weather these last few years in January and February.”
Pending free agent Craig Conroy hopes he’s back with the Flames come February at McMahon.
“My only concern is the weather,” he said. “Look, it’s almost snowing here, and it’s June. So you never know around here.”
Up in Edmonton, Commonwealth Stadium hosted 57,196 fans for the Heritage Classic on a day the thermometer dropped to —23 C.
After that game, the NHL waited five years for another try in Buffalo. In 2009, Chicago hosted a game at Wrigley Field. In 2010, Boston took a turn at Fenway Park.
Next season will mark the first time the NHL is holding two outdoor games in a single year.
“I know a lot of people have done it, but I still think Calgary is going to rally around it,” Conroy said. “I think it will be sold out. Some people may think it’s already been done so many times, but people really don’t care about that.
“We haven’t done it before in Calgary. This is the first time, maybe the only time, something like this will happen in Calgary.”
McMahon Stadium traditionally seats about 35,000. For the 2010 Grey Cup, temporary seats bumped the capacity to roughly 45,000.
Those temporary seats are long gone.
“The concept of adding some seats back in is always there,” Haverstock said. “This is an exciting event. It’s unique. Not as unique as when the Oilers did it, but it still captures the imagination of the hockey fan and the non-hockey fan.”
Former Flames general manager Craig Button says he won’t miss it for anything.
“This is something the NHL has really done something special with,” said Button, an analyst with the NHL Network. “It would be like Major League Baseball having a sandlot game. Or if the NBA had a huge game on an outdoor playground.
“Everybody can relate to the guy shovelling or the guy playing. We’ve all been there.”
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