Edmonton - there are still hours of hockey ahead of us when my friend turns his head and says, "This is really about survival, isn't it?" At least I think he turns, but I can't move my own head to look at him. I'm immobilized, swaddled in the most winter gear I have ever worn as we take in the Hockey Heritage games in Edmonton's frozen Commonwealth Stadium. He's right, it is about survival. Romantic visions fuelled by watching the Grey Cup inside on TV made me think that sitting though two hockey games - one in the dark - in sub-zero weather for over five hours would be a piece of ice cream cake.
But when it hits -22o Celsius and dropping, thoughts of "How cold is too cold?" and "Can my toes actually snap off?" share the day with button-pushing flashbacks as I watch the game played outdoors as we did when we were kids - and still do sometimes. Only the other guys playing are Gretzky, Coffey and Lafleur.
Earlier, we hesitate to bring our flasks. Newspaper notices promise major pat-downs with goodies confiscated and no trade-backs.
Screw it, we decide, and hit a liquor store blocks from the stadium. Big boys in snowsuits look like little kids in overstuffed sleepers as they crowd the parking lot, fuelling up from bottles for the game. Liquor stores are private in Alberta and a jolly drunken clerk tries to convince me that wood alcohol is just like cognac - "That's all you need for the game."
"But we've got girls with us," I say, trying to find a polite way to ignore his big-grinned advice.
"Just tell them it's vodka, and as long as they don't light a match around it, they'll be OK."
But the ballyhooed pat-down proves to be another friendly Alberta moment as the security guard superficially searches one in 10 game-goers and makes it clear he doesn't really want to find anything. He smiles, pointing to his only confiscated booty, a garish green 40-ouncer of crème de menthe (yuck!), and we wonder where the hell somebody stuffed that.
A blank sheet of ice thrills me. It's a beautiful thing full of potential, in some ways at its best before it's used, without any of the bad passes or missed checks that will inevitably come. When I dash down a ramp into the stadium to get my first look inside the playing field, I'm stopped in my tracks by the beauty of the rink with the sun streaming down on it. It's parked in a meadow of snow, and almost 60,000 people in the stands are giddy with anticipation - and all of them still feel their toes, a situation that will quickly change.
We could be anywhere, Withrow Park or Trinity-Bellwoods, as players skate on the ice frozen outside of the boards before stepping on the rink. The Canadiens' old-timers have it right, players like Guy Lafleur and Larry Robinson sport rockin' red, white and blue toques straight out of the 70s, while the Oilers have the bad taste to wear headgear plastered with Ford logos. I blame Gretzky.
The entire affair is surprisingly under-commercialized. You can't buy a Canadiens tuque anywhere in the stadium, they've only made 100 for players and staff. And nobody'd want the Oilers hat. There are few souvenir stands, and the only people working hard to sell you anything are flogging beer or 50/50 tickets.
Watching the Great One and great ones go through their warm-up drills and then clear the ice between periods with snow shovels deconstructs what has become such a big-buck enterprise in a gorgeous way, but survival remains the theme of the day.
It's like a slumber party with icicles. People look like the pyjamaed kids in Peter Pan, huddled under blankets and sleeping bags, desperate to stay warm. The group gets silly the way too-tired kids make stupid jokes past bedtime or people in lifeboats search for desperate humour to sustain them.
Scattered cries of Bob and Doug's "Koo-roo, koo-roo, koo-roo, koo-koo" erupt as if from icy bullfrogs, and people dissolve in laughter. Frigid beer vendors stumble through the crowd, the foam as solid as whipped cream on top of drinks that freeze before you can finish them.
Between periods we rush into the stadium's guts, but there are no enclosed areas, no real warmth. The crowd forms into a down-stuffed mob. Fears of fatal stampedes and replays of Who concerts are alleviated by drink, friendliness and a desperation for warmth that promotes claustrophobic proximity. The lucky ones warm themselves by the heat of the nacho cheese melters.
No ushers linger to send people to their seats and toque-wearing Edmonton cops are a rare sight. There's little puke, and the truly reeling drunks all seem piloted by well-meaning friends who aren't about to let them expire, frozen stiff in a snow bank.
Sitting through the game is the ultimate face paint, the biggest logo ever reproduced on a hockey-loving fan's belly. It's as if we all agreed to squeeze our wrists or endure some other collective act of masochistic sacrifice for half a day to affirm our love of hockey. And it's worth it.