Rally Round the Rink: Outdoor hockey in Wood Buffalo? The community says yes to the Northern Classic!

By Andrew Stuckey - Wednesday, December 1 2010

Sheldon Germain, who grew up in Fort McMurray, remembers long winter days spent playing shinny with his brothers on their backyard skating rink, which had been flooded with the garden hose. The weather didn’t bother them; all that counted was the game. “We all imagined we were going to be the next big NHL star,” he recalls fondly.

That memory and that dream, primal for Canadians, is why it took a mere 54 minutes to sell out 5,000 general admission tickets to the country’s first ever outdoor junior hockey game, says Germain, a member of Council and chair of the organizing group for the Northern Classic, the biggest hockey event that the municipality has ever hosted.

“It will be, of course, a great game in and of itself. But what is really drawing people is that it evokes our childhood excitement and the joy we had when we first took to the ice – in our backyards, on the streets, on community rinks,” says Germain. “It’s the symbolism that has been such a driving force.

“This is pond hockey Fort-McMurray style.”

Setting Records

The Nov. 26 contest has the Fort McMurray Oil Barons taking on the Drayton Valley Thunder. Another record is also being set: The previous top attendance for an Alberta Junior Hockey League game was 4,400. Tickets, in the grassroots spirit of the event, are priced at $10.

More than 300 volunteers will suit up in branded toques and mittens. Four provincial ministers are attending and TSN anchormen Dan O’Toole and Jay Onrait are also scheduled to catch the game. O’Toole called play-by-play for the Oil Barons from 1988 to 1991 while he worked as sports director for CJOK-FM and CKYX-FM radio.

There will also be entertainment: The Trews, Mike Plume and David Francey, who wrote Skating Rink – the title song of his 2003 Juno-winning CD – about an outdoor rink across the road from his home in Ayer’s Cliff, Que. Hockey Night in Canada has played the tune on several occasions and made it the theme song for Hockey Day in Canada.

“I don’t think this could have happened anywhere else but in Fort McMurray,” says Tim Reid, vicechairman, events, for the Northern Classic and chief operating officer of MacDonald Island Park, where the game is being held in a temporary stadium. “We have an ability to think way outside the box – and have the utmost confidence that what we think, we can do.

“Nothing is really too big – and there’s nothing that can’t be done. If you have a good idea, there’s a group of dedicated people in Fort McMurray that can make it happen.”

Easy Sell

Andrew Boutilier, president of the Oil Barons Hockey Club and a former Oil Barons player, remembers kicking around the idea of an outdoor game almost two years ago with MOB coach Gord Thibodeau and Germain. But the ball really got rolling in September 2010 and was quick to gain momentum.

“This event is huge for our community, our recreation partners and the people that call Wood Buffalo home,” says Boutilier, vice chairman of hockey operations for the Northern Classic. “I have always been a big advocate for our region and always will be; this is our home and our game.”

Once the idea started floating around, community leaders and hockey fans were an easy sell, agrees Reid. “Done deal – we sat everyone around a table, talked about it for an hour or so and the commitment was in place.”

More than 20 volunteer directors stepped forward, “people who show up with their cheque books and shovels,” says Reid. “These people are doers. We had less than 90 days to put together a temporary outdoor facility large enough to hold 5,000 people, raise $750,000 in financial support and then sell the idea to the community.”

It has been a “mammoth task,” but “this community comes together in a way that is the envy of the entire country.”

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