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Expect a 20th anniversary edition of the inaugural NHL outdoor game to be played in Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium in late November of 2023.
If you ask Stu Ballantyne — and he’s now the man to ask — you can expect to see a return of the NHL outdoor game to where it was first created as the Heritage Classic, the first NHL regular-season outdoor game in history, the outdoor game that inspired an NHL phenomenon.
“We definitely want to have an outdoor game. There hasn’t been one here since the inaugural,” said Ballantyne, the recently promoted senior vice-president of venues and entertainment of the Oilers Entertainment Group. “The game was invented here. It’s time for it to come back here. And we believe the perfect time to bring it back would be to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the inaugural game. It’s an event that was created here, has become a great tradition for the NHL and it would be a perfect way for the league to recognize that.
“In recent years, the NHL has it mapped out how to do an outdoor game, but if you go back to Pat LaForge and the Edmonton Oilers in 2003, they had no road map. They truly were innovators and did an amazing job.”
With Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and all those guys now in their 60s, there would likely be no hope in replicating the alumni game that preceded it involving a dozen Hall-of-Famers from the Oilers and Montreal Canadiens dynasty teams.
And Ballantyne isn’t sure a 20th anniversary game here should be another featuring the Oilers versus the Canadiens.
“Back in the day, two dynasty teams playing in the game was pretty cool. I think the selfish side of me would say an Edmonton-Calgary Battle of Alberta would be a better way to go with the next one.”
Whatever, bet on there being a next one, bet there will be another NHL outdoor game in Edmonton in the immediate future.
“I think it is highly likely we will soon play host to another outdoor game in Edmonton. The question is going to be when. I think 2023, with a 20th anniversary game would be perfect,” is how Ballantyne phrased it.
With the departure back to Seattle of former Rogers Place executive v-p and general manager Susan Darrington, Ballantyne has taken over her portfolio primarily involving concerts and expanded it to include all events. Bringing events such as an outdoor game, NHL Entry Draft and NHL all-star game and the Brier are now all on his plate.
Ballantyne, along with Tim Shipton, were the Edmonton organization’s point-people in dealing with the NHL in delivering the 81 Hub City bubble games from the start to finish of the playoffs, through to the presentation of Stanley Cup by commissioner Gary Bettman to the Tampa Bay Lightning.
“I think that really helped build our relationship with the NHL,” said Ballantyne, the former GM of Vancouver’s Molson Indy whom Oilers president Bob Nicholson, then head of Hockey Canada, hired to organize the 2006 world junior chamionships in Vancouver along with other events that followed. Ballantyne was brought to Edmonton when Nicholson joined the Oilers from Hockey Canada.
“When you’re spending 70 days with a group and working together hand-in-hand like we were, the NHL now has a full understanding of how we work and what we’re were able to do to help them pull off the Hub City. And, of course, we went through the IIHF (International Ice Hockey Federation) world juniors with Hockey Canada in a bubble environment and it went very, very well,” said Ballantyne. “We’ve been chatting for a number of years on NHL events and have already put in bids for both the NHL Entry Draft and the all-star game.
”With everything having been moved or cancelled the last year or so because of COVID-19, we never got actual concrete dates. But certainly the experience we had with the league, with the facility and with our people, they are very keen to come back here with both.”
With Edmonton having become a bi-annual host of what is now the Gretzky-Hlinka Cup and fans being educated about the event by witnessing the number of future stars involved in the world juniors and becoming first-round draft choices from the first Gretzky-Hliinka Cup here, you can bet on one thing in regards to the next NHL Entry Draft here.
“I think we’d want to do it in an odd numbered year so that the kids who played in our Gretzky-Hlinka Cup, that will next be held here in 2022, 2024 and 2026 would be back to be drafted here the following June,” he explained.
Ballantyne said he has a comfort level that the return of the world juniors next holiday season will this time include games in Red Deer and the sold-out buildings for every game that had been achieved before the coronavirus pandemic changed everything.
“At this moment, we think there’s enough time that we could see full buildings of fans. That’s certainly the way the planning is working right now.”
But be advised, there will almost certainly be an NHL outdoor game and NHL Entry Draft to follow here in short order.
E-mail: [email protected]
On Twitter: @byterryjones
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