Teams prepared for cold, excitement

EDMONTON, Alberta -- Sheldon Souray advises wimps to stay away.

"If it's cold,'' challenges the Montreal Canadiens' free-spirited defenseman, "wear a tuque. If it snows, grab a shovel.

"It's not as if none of us has ever seen a little snow before. It's not as if none of us has ever played hockey on an outdoor rink before.''

True enough. But late Saturday afternoon will be unlike anything Souray, or anyone else involved in this highly-anticipated Heritage Classic, has ever been involved in. A crowd of over 55,000 -- expected to be the largest ever to gather to see an NHL game, second largest in hockey -- will pile into Edmonton's Commonwealth Stadium for an unprecedented event in the pro game.

And, yes, it will be cold when the Canadiens and Edmonton Oilers at 7 p.m. in the self-styled Heartland of Hockey. Mighty cold. Colder than a mother-in-law's kiss.

"It's going to be interesting, for sure,'' says Habs' captain Saku Koivu, not sounding entirely convinced. "I haven't played outside since I was maybe seven or eight years old.''

The Canadiens must have wondered what they'd gotten themselves into when they arrived in Calgary, three hours due south of Edmonton, to open their brief Alberta tour against the Flames.

A huge dump of the white stuff blanketed the province earlier in the week, but the Saturday forecast is for clear skies and a daytime high of 14 degrees (minus 10 Celcius). Which means when Gretzky, Coffey, Lafleur, Robinson and the rest of the oldtimers get the opportunity to thaw out, just, as fate would have it, when the sun begins to set, and make way for the NHL's first for-real outdoor game, the mercury will likely have dipped to 7 degrees (minus 14C). Or lower.

Weather conditions, obviously, are a concern.

In an effort to have all possible bases covered, Canadiens' equipment manager Pierre Gervais had six bags of gear -- underwear, tuques (hats usually with ear flaps), hoodies and socks -- shipped to Edmonton. After consulting with other equipment experts, including friends from the NFL Green Bay Packers and Canadian Football League Montreal Alouettes, he settled on using Under Armour, the same insulating underwear football players regularly use in cold environments.

Each player on the Habs has three sets to change into.

Gervais, anticipating a rougher-than-usual ice surface, one susceptible to the whims of the weather, also has an extra skate sharpener on hand, just in case.

"We have no idea what to expect,'' admits Montreal defenseman Patrice Brisebois. "What's it going to be like dropping down to block a shot when it's so cold? I don't know. And I probably don't want to find out. But we've got all kinds of stuff to keep us as warm as possible. Underwear. Gloves for underneath our hockey gloves. Covering for our heads."

Oilers' general manager Kevin Lowe thinks it's downright asinine to become obsessed with risk to the point it interferes with anyone's enjoyment of
what is a historic event.

"Obviously, you don't want to end up with egg all over your face. We all want it to go well. In a perfect world it wouldn't be too cold and there wouldn't be any snow, until right at the end, a little dusting, just for ambiance sake. But things are rarely perfect.

"And, yes, we are cognizant of the players and their feelings. They don't want to jeopardize their health. That's understandable.

"But ... c'mon. You send a guy to the All-Star game, he could blow his knee out and be gone for the season. Heck, you could get run over by a truck going down to the corner store. Does that mean you don't go the All-Star game or run out to get that carton of milk?

"I sat down with our guys the other day and asked them to voice any concerns they had. Everything was fine.

"If there weren't any heaters on the bench, I could maybe see there being a concern. I was out (at Commonwealth) today, and it was a bit cold, sure. A couple of the guys said their visors fogged up a bit. But if you want to stay warm, I've got a tip for you -- skate. I don't think anyone wants or needs to hear professional athletes complaining about the cold.

"We've instructed our staff to make sure Montreal has everything they need in the way of hoodies, gloves, whatever."

Goaltender is always a lonely position. Saturday, it's likely to be a cold position, as well.

Jose Theodore admits he's a bit wary of standing around too much. Goalies today are infamous for the amount of padding they carry into battle. But come Saturday, Theodore and his Edmonton counterpart, Tommy Salo or Ty Conklin, might very well resemble a couple of Michelin Men.

Oiler coach Craig MacTavish doesn't foresee any icicles forming on his guy.

"I hope we have to surgically remove our goalie from the ice on Saturday,'' he joked. "Because that means he won't have had any action. But history tells me he'll probably keep very warm and handle a lot of shots.

"Personally, I think everybody's making more of the weather than is there. I think it's going to be a great atmosphere. I just hope it doesn't get too windy."

There is the option to shift the game indoors a day late, but after all the hoopla about the novelty of this event and an unprecedented amount of buildup, only a wicked Arctic cold front sweeping south could put it in any sort of jeopardy.

"I'm not afraid of a little frostbite,'' Souray said. "Besides, we've got the extra underwear and stuff to keep us warm.

"I'm going to play in front of the biggest crowd ever to watch an NHL game. In front of my family and friends. For the Montreal Canadiens. On Hockey Night in Canada on a Saturday night.

"And I get to hang with Wayne Gretzky and Guy Lafleur. What could be so bad, right?''


Brisebois insists there's no sense in worrying about the unknown.

"The players know everything that can be done is being done. I think it's going to be fun. I'm looking forward to it. It's only a regular-season game but everyone looks at it like its playoffs. This is a game they'll be talking about 10 and 15 years from now; a game I'll be looking back on when I retire. How will it go?''

A helpless shrug.

"I guess we'll just have to show up and find out.''

George Johnson of the Calgary Herald is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.