If you’re a sports fan, chances are, you’ve at least contemplated some kind of crazy trip to see your favorite team or sport in action. A friend of mine went to Brazil last summer to watch Team USA in a World Cup soccer match. Several of you reading this post probably traveled to Indianapolis, Louisville, Houston, or one of the other cities hosting NCAA basketball tournament games to cheer your favorite college team. Let’s face it, since pretty much the beginning of time, sports fanatics have been willing to travel long distances by any means possible to watch a match (I’m sure Matthew receives many award booking inquiries every year for that very reason).
Living in Dallas, we’ve had the good fortune to have good teams over the years in baseball, basketball, football, and hockey, so for the most part, I haven’t really felt the urge to take a trip just to watch a game. But I did make an exception for what was a very special event for hockey fans, something I was waxing nostalgic about with the Stanley Cup playoffs set to start in a few days. On November 22, 2003, the Edmonton Oilers hosted the Montreal Canadiens in the NHL’s inaugural Heritage Classic, an outdoor regular season hockey game that has since become an annual ritual, at Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium (a Canadian Football League stadium). I got wind of the game a few months beforehand, and being single and a borderline maniacal hockey fan at the time, I decided that I just had to go. Yes, to Edmonton, to sit outside, in late November, to watch a hockey game. And I was even able to convince my friend Guy to go along with me. Thanks to the modern miracle that is eBay, I was able to buy a pair of tickets for roughly $190 apiece. There was only one problem: every hotel in Edmonton and the surrounding area had been sold out for months already. The only viable option was to stay in Calgary, 180 miles to the south, and then drive up on game day. Sweet! Hockey and a road trip all in one package! This was going to be one awesome trip.
The First Leg to Calgary
It didn’t take long for our long-planned trip to turn into a full-fledged adventure. I had been watching the weather closely for about two weeks prior to our planned departure, and about a week out, it became clear that we’d have a minor issue – the first arctic blast of the season was locking and loading across the Yukon, and was scheduled to blast south through the Canadian prairies a couple of days before our scheduled arrival in Calgary. It appeared we’d miss the snow, but we were in for some serious cold, with a forecast temperature of 15 below zero the night of our arrival, maybe rising to 5 below in Edmonton by gametime the next day. That might be an ordinary winter’s day for Canadians, but remember, I’ve spent nearly my whole life in Texas, where it gets cold enough for snow maybe once or twice a year. Luckily the airlines didn’t charge for bags yet, because I needed to pack a serious amount of heavy clothes…
Anyway, our day of departure arrived, with a scheduled early afternoon flight to Calgary from DFW on American. We boarded on time – but then a few minutes later, the dreaded announcement that there was a problem with the plane that couldn’t be fixed and we’d need to deboard. Luckily, since DFW is such a large hub for American, they were able to find a spare plane, and we left with roughly an hour and a half delay. The rest of the flight to Calgary was uneventful, though the weatherman was right about the cold. It was 8 below outside – at something like 6 P.M. Brrrr. Getting through customs was painless, though the officer seemed somewhat bemused that a couple of crazy people from Texas had flown up to then drive another 3 hours the next day to watch a hockey game.
Now safely in the Great White North, the next order of business was to obtain some cold weather survival gear. Guy had heard that pocket warmers work wonders to keep hands and feet warm (a deer hunter’s old trick), so we took the rental car in search of the obvious place to buy some – Wal-Mart. That also gave Guy the chance to buy the Canadian specialty he always wanted, ketchup flavored Lays (sounds gross, but they actually weren’t bad, just a little on the sweet side). After a quick dinner enjoying another Canadian specialty, fries and gravy, we headed to the hotel, the landmark Fairmont Palliser Hotel. It was too long ago to put together a detailed review, but I do remember it being a lovely hotel, with larger rooms than you would normally expect in a historic building. And most importantly, the heat worked well.
It’s approximately 180 miles from Calgary to Edmonton, a straight shot up the interstate standard Highway 2 (Deerfoot Trail), meaning a 3 hour drive more or less to get to the stadium. With a 3:00 start, that gave us plenty of time to get to the game. It was a cold start to the day – a 16 below morning – but at least the sun was out, so we had an easy drive up to Edmonton.
A little over an hour before game time, we made it to Commonwealth Stadium and made our way to our seats in the upper deck. Two crazy Texans joining 57,165 crazy Canadians to watch hockey in a football stadium. Gametime temperature of 4 below zero, with a wind chill approaching 20 below. It was a sight to behold. And yes, we were both freezing our rear ends off.
Photo courtesy Guyton Gagliardi/used with permission
You would think watching hockey from the upper deck of a football stadium would be self-defeating, but the beauty of ice hockey is that the higher up you are, the better you can see the plays develop in real time. The Oilers and Canadiens treated the announced crowd of 57,167 to a splendid game, with a final score of 4-3 Canadiens, and even treating the fans to an old timers’ game before the start of the actual game. The most memorable moment – it was so cold, Canadiens goalie Jose Theodore wore a ski cap over his goalie mask to keep warm. And during the first intermission, even the players complained about how cold it was. That made me feel at least a little better about being so cold…
Speaking of which, how does one stay warm for 3 hours while staring down a 20 below wind chill? Lots of layers, pocket warmers in both coat pockets and both shoes, walking around the stadium between periods, and one hot chocolate each intermission. The coolest part of the entire experience? When the beer man would come around to sell Molsons in the stands, the frigid temperatures resulted in a slushy film of ice on the head of each beer. Yum…a beer Slushee. That’s something I’ll probably never see again.
After the game, we grabbed dinner near the stadium, some excellent Alberta beef for me, along with more fries and gravy for the table, before making the drive back to Calgary. It was well after midnight by the time we pulled in to the hotel, both of us exhausted after a very long day.
The Journey Home
A “warm” front had come through overnight, bringing temperatures up into the teens by Sunday morning. Our flight home wasn’t until evening, so after checking out and heading to the airport, we stopped by a casino to play some blackjack. Or more correctly, for the blackjack table to take some of my money before getting on the plane. Unlike the flight up, the return flight was on time, and we were back in Dallas on Sunday evening to 50-something degree weather. Talk about wild – a nearly 70-degree swing in temperatures on the way up, and a 40-degree swing on the way back. Calgary has a US Customs pre-clearance facility, so luckily, we were able to take care of those formalities before boarding the plane. The officer actually smiled when I told him I’d flown up to watch the Heritage Classic. Guess the thought of someone crazy enough to actually do that was amusing even to usually stiff-lipped CBP employees.
Ultimately, this one single hockey game cost me: $190 for the ticket, $200 for my half of the hotel room, $481 for the plane ticket to Calgary, probably $50 for meals, another $50 lost at the casino, and 400 miles worth of gas. That’s in addition to 3 days and about half a dozen pocket warmers. And freezing my derierre off
Nearly twelve years later, I look back on this trip and can’t believe I actually went all the way to Edmonton to watch a hockey game (honestly, what I really wish I did was drive to Edmonton for the game, which would have made for an even more insane story). Of course, I now have a terrific story to tell at ice breakers and to my kids one day, which is priceless. Would I do it again? Heck yeah, assuming I can get my wife to give me permission 🙂
So how about you, fellow UPGRD readers? Have you ever taken a crazy trip to watch a sporting event?