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Too Much Nostalgia? A Decennial Reflection on the Heritage Classic Ice Hockey Event

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Abstract

This research note explores the legacy of the Heritage Classic, an outdoor ice hockey event held in Edmonton, Canada in November 2003. The event explicitly and successfully evoked nostalgia for former players, past teams, rural environments, and the egalitarian nature of childhood games, becoming a major international media and tourism event as well as the template for numerous outdoor ice hockey events held around the world. It also provided the Edmonton Oilers hockey club and the event's organizers with both emotional and economic capital at a time when the franchise required support. However, the success of the Heritage Classic meant that the National Hockey League (NHL) and other hockey leagues would organize subsequent outdoor hockey events, thereby minimizing the ability for individual franchises to benefit from their heritage as the Oilers did. Furthermore, little was done locally to build on the success of the Heritage Classic, while the proliferation of similar events globally may have minimized both the media and tourism impacts of subsequent outdoor hockey games.
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has defined the term “special event” in a sporting
context. The Heritage Classic, a pair of outdoor
ice hockey games that explicitly and successfully
evoked nostalgia for former players, past teams,
rural environments, and the egalitarian nature of
childhood games, has become the template for
a variety of ice hockey events around the world.
Address correspondence to Gregory Ramshaw, Ph.D., Department of Parks, Recreation & Tourism Management, Clemson University,
128 McGinty Court, 263 Lehotsky Hall, Clemson, SC 29634-0735, USA. Tel: 864-656-4205; Fax: 864-656-2226;
E-mail: gramsha@clemson.edu
Introduction
On November 22, 2003, nearly 60,000 ice hockey
fans from around the world packed into Common-
wealth Stadium in Edmonton, Canada, braving brutal
winter temperatures and astronomical ticket prices,
to witness a spectacle that, in the decade since,
RESEARCH NOTE
TOO MUCH NOSTALGIA? A DECENNIAL REFLECTION
ON THE HERITAGE CLASSIC ICE HOCKEY EVENT
GREGORY RAMSHAW
Department of Parks, Recreation & Tourism Management, Clemson University, Clemson, SC, USA
This research note explores the legacy of the Heritage Classic, an outdoor ice hockey event held
in Edmonton, Canada in November 2003. The event explicitly and successfully evoked nostalgia
for former players, past teams, rural environments, and the egalitarian nature of childhood games,
becoming a major international media and tourism event as well as the template for numerous outdoor
ice hockey events held around the world. It also provided the Edmonton Oilers hockey club and the
event’s organizers with both emotional and economic capital at a time when the franchise required
support. However, the success of the Heritage Classic meant that the National Hockey League (NHL)
and other hockey leagues would organize subsequent outdoor hockey events, thereby minimizing the
ability for individual franchises to benefit from their heritage as the Oilers did. Furthermore, little
was done locally to build on the success of the Heritage Classic, while the proliferation of similar
events globally may have minimized both the media and tourism impacts of subsequent outdoor
hockey games.
Key words: Heritage; Nostalgia; Sporting event; Hockey; National Hockey League (NHL);
Edmonton Oilers
474 RAMSHAW
indoor game in Edmonton. Approximately 50,000
tickets were allocated to Edmonton Oiler season
ticket holders, sponsors, and league officials, leav-
ing a little over 7,000 seats available to casual ticket
buyers. The Edmonton Oilers held a draw, allowing
the 1,750 “winners” the right to purchase up to four
tickets to the event. According to Edmonton Oil-
ers Heritage, in 2005, “the team received 750,000
entries, representing a demand of 3 million tickets,
and over three times the population of the city itself.
The Oilers drew winners from as far as Fairbanks,
Alaska, and Leeds, England” (retrieved from web-
site that is no longer available). Tickets were in such
heavy demand that in the weeks leading up to the
event, Internet auction sites regularly listed tickets
at over US$1,500 each. A large national and inter-
national media contingent also covered the event,
which was unprecedented for a regular season NHL
game, and the Edmonton Oilers organization made
a profit of several million dollars through tickets,
sponsorships, and merchandise sales (Ramshaw &
Hinch, 2006). Cold weather also played a major
role, as temperatures hovered around the −20°C
mark during the event. This was unusually cold for
Edmonton in November, but added (particularly in
retrospect) to the event’s mythology. In fact, the
bitterly cold temperatures—which were central in
the media’s interpretation of Edmonton at the time
of the event (Ramshaw & Hinch, 2006)—are also
paramount in several contemporary media retro-
spectives about the Heritage Classic (Matheson,
2013; McCurdy, 2013; Tychkowski, 2013).
If nostalgia is a synonym for bittersweetness—as
Davis (1979) has argued, nostalgia is a highly sub-
jective positive view of the past juxtaposed with an
unsatisfactory present and uncertain future—then
the Heritage Classic’s success was likely due, in
part, to a bittersweet longing for a better time. The
event was organized by the Edmonton Oilers hockey
club and, as Ramshaw (2009) explains, was meant to
serve a dual role. First, the Oilers had not been suc-
cessful for some time. Though they were one of the
most decorated teams of the 1980s and early 1990s,
winning five Stanley Cup championships and boast-
ing an all star line-up including superstar Wayne
Gretzky, the Oilers had had many difficulties since
their glory years, including the trade of Gretzky in
1988, ownership issues and the near relocation of the
franchise in the mid-1990s, the sale of top players
The purpose of this research note is to comment on
the legacy of the Heritage Classic at its decennial,
noting that though it was a triumph at the time—and
has become the prototype for many events since—
its legacy may best be described as mixed.
In 2003, the Heritage Classic was described by the
organizers—the Edmonton Oilers hockey club—as
“what playing in the Heartland of Hockey1 is all
about—pulling on a toque, bundling up, and getting
out into the great outdoors. (The teams are) turning
back the clock for the Heritage Classic, and giving
fans the chance to relive hockey’s golden heritage.”
The event featured two games between the home-
town Edmonton Oilers and the visiting Montreal
Canadiens played on an outdoor rink decorated to
look like a prairie farmyard. The first game was
an “old timers” match featuring retired players
from each of the Oilers and Canadiens and, most
importantly, the repatriation of Wayne Gretzky to
Edmonton. His surprise trade to Los Angeles in
1988 marked an important point in the expansion of
the NHL into the US (Brunt, 2009) as well as in the
social and cultural articulation of Canadian national
identity for a generation (Jackson, 1994), so his
return to Edmonton—playing on the most quintes-
sential of Canadian sport landscapes, the outdoor
rink—was greatly anticipated. The second game
was the first ever NHL regular season outdoor con-
test pitting the (then) current Oilers and Canadiens
squads. The event took place over a 7-hour period,
with the old timers’ game being played in the after-
noon and the regular season match being played in
the evening. The fact the games were played out-
doors on a rink decorated to evoke a time and place
from the past was very important and added to both
the mystique and uniqueness of the event. Depic-
tions of outdoor hockey are extremely prevalent,
particularly in Canada. The outdoor rink has many
motifs, be it rural frozen pond, a backyard rink,
or a community-operated skating surface, and has
become a “facet of northern recreational heritage”
(Falla, 2000, p. 54) and, as such, conjures nostal-
gic memories of childhood winters (Ramshaw &
Hinch, 2006). The Heritage Classic was as much a
cultural performance as it was a sporting event.
The Heritage Classic was, by all indications, a
success. The attendance was 57,167 fans, the larg-
est crowd in NHL history at the time and nearly
three and a half times the attendance of a regular
HERITAGE CLASSIC ICE HOCKEY EVENT 475
then, its legacy is varied. Though the Heritage Clas-
sic was not the first outdoor hockey game3, it has
served as the template for outdoor hockey events
in the decade since. As of 2014 nearly 100 outdoor
hockey games have been played or are planned to
be played at various locations around the world,
from the NHL through to junior and college hockey
games. As in Edmonton, many of these games were
held at large football or soccer stadiums, but many
have also been held in baseball stadiums—most
notably Boston’s Fenway Park, Chicago’s Wrig-
ley Field, and New York’s Yankee Stadium—and
at prominent landmarks such as Red Square in
Moscow and in a Roman amphitheater in Croatia
(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_outdoor_ice_
hockey_games). The NHL—which has organized
annual outdoor games since 2009—included five
outdoor games in its schedule in 2013–14, includ-
ing two games in locations (Vancouver and Los
Angeles) that do not have climates suitable for
outdoor hockey. Seemingly the demand for tickets,
merchandise, and sponsorship is great enough to
support so many outdoor events.
However, much of what made the Heritage Clas-
sic a success may have eroded, in large part because
of the proliferation of similar events. The Heritage
Classic was a major national and international media
event, and though the media interpretations of both
Edmonton and the event itself varied (Ramshaw &
Hinch, 2006), it is unlikely that a community could
now use an outdoor hockey event to attract signifi-
cant media attention to shape place image or identity.
As early as 2005—when there were just a fraction of
the games there are now—media depictions became
dismissive (questioning the novelty of such events)
or nonexistent ( Ramshaw, 2009). Certainly some
outdoor games, such as the NBC’s Winter Classic
held each January 1, still receive significant media
attention, but there is nothing particularly special
about outdoor hockey events. Similarly, though
there is little doubt that outdoor games could attract
fans and other sport tourists, sustained local impact
seems unlikely. Furthermore, the sheer number of
games means there is no urgency for fans to travel to
witness and experience these events. Unlike when
the Heritage Classic was staged, outdoor hockey
games are no longer once-in-a-lifetime events.
It must also be remembered that the Heritage Clas-
sic served very specific purposes for the Edmonton
and the inability to sign free agents, and several
years of poor play. Simply put, by 2003 the franchise
required a major boost to retain season ticket hold-
ers and sponsors. Furthermore, the 2004–05 season
was expected to be impacted by a labor dispute2,
further necessitating a need to romanticize the past.
Secondly, a large-scale event like the Heritage Clas-
sic meant a boost in revenue through ticket sales for
the event, sponsorship, and merchandise. This was
particularly important to the Oilers franchise, as
they did not anticipate generating revenue through
playoff ticket sales and were concerned about the
financial impact of a future labor dispute.
In the decade since the Heritage Classic was
held, its legacy has been mixed. For the Edmonton
Oilers, the event was an important milestone. The
Oilers achieved their main goals of solidifying their
fan base and generating enough revenue to see them
through the labor dispute and, despite the team’s
ongoing poor performance (the team has only made
the playoffs once since the Heritage Classic) they
continue to play to sold-out crowds. However, at
the local level, though the media and population
widely embraced the event, little was done to lever-
age its success into a lasting community impact.
Media, in particular, argued that Edmonton should
embrace its winterness and, given the success of the
Heritage Classic, should look to having an annual
winter festival—with an outdoor hockey game as
the centerpiece (Ramshaw & Hinch, 2006). How-
ever, until recently, little has been done to posi-
tion Edmonton as a winter destination (Explore
Edmonton, 2013) or a center for winter recreation
and leisure (City of Edmonton, 2013), and none of
these initiatives appear to be directly linked the Heri-
tage Classic. Although the Edmonton Oilers have
publically said that they would like to host another
Heritage Classic event in the future ( Tychkowski,
2013), unlike the 2003 event that was organized
by the Oilers franchise, the outdoor games are now
organized and operated by the NHL and, as such,
the Oilers would likely have to bid for the right to
hold any future outdoor game. Ultimately, the local
legacy of the Heritage Classic appears to be, ironi-
cally enough, nostalgia—local fans, organizers, and
participants nostalgically reflecting on a nostalgia-
based event.
The national and international impact of the Her-
itage Classic is much more robust. However, even
476 RAMSHAW
head approach, both looking back (in using heritage
and nostalgia as a key feature) and forward (to be
innovative and unique in order to attract attention
and support). Thus, heritage and nostalgia-based
events—particularly if they are staged to attract a
wider audience—must incorporate both the famil-
iar and the innovative; they must be simulta neously
recognizable and unique. Clearly this can be a
challenge, and much, it would seem, depends on
the intended outcomes of the event. Incorporation
of heritage at some events, such as at an Olympics
opening ceremony, are clearly meant for a broader
audiences where a blend of “old/recognizable” and
“new/contemporary” heritage and culture is meant
to create a postevent legacy, particularly in adapt-
ing or changing a host’s image and identity to the
world (Gammon, Ramshaw, & Waterton, 2013).
Other heritage-based events may be intended pri-
marily for a local audience, though may attract
some wider attention. Clearly, contemporary out-
door hockey games fall into this latter category, as a
replication of the common outdoor hockey template
blended with local cultures and heritages is primar-
ily meant to attract local attention and support,
though with some national or international atten-
tion. As it stands, this appears to suit the NHL and
other leagues just fine. However, it is unclear how
these kinds of heritage and nostalgia-based events
could attract international attention, as was the case
with the Heritage Classic, or what a new/innovative
heritage template might look like. As such, outdoor
hockey events provide us a glimpse into the use—
and, perhaps, overuse—of heritage and nostalgia as
event cornerstones, in that heritage and nostalgia
can provide a unique “hook” and offer degrees of
success for a period of time, but that they have a
tendency to become common and stale, which may
impact broader event outcomes.
Notes
1“Heartland of Hockey” was the Edmonton Oilers market-
ing slogan for the 2003–2004 season.
2The 2004–2005 NHL season was ultimately canceled due
to a dispute between the players and owners over the Collec-
tive Bargaining Agreement.
3Several outdoor hockey games had been played prior
to the Heritage Classic—most notably a 1957 international
hockey game at Lenin Stadium in Moscow and a 2001 col-
lege hockey game in East Lansing, Michigan; these events
did not explicitly use nostalgia or heritage in the creation
Oilers at a particular point in time. In essence,
leveraging the team’s rich heritage and banking on
the public’s desire to nostalgize that past helped
generate significant capital for the team—both eco-
nomic and emotional. The event may not have been
as successful had it been held earlier (when successes
weren’t so distant a memory) or later (when the
past was too distant, particularly for some younger
fans). The fact that the Oilers marked the decennial
on social media and on their website (Pinchevsky,
2013) means that it is still an important marker in
the team’s history. However, the success of the event
has made it challenging for the Oilers—or any other
organization—to use an outdoor hockey event for
broader purposes. What Moore (2002) termed “prac-
tical nostalgia”—looking back as a way of looking
forward—may no longer be an option. The Oilers—
and similar sports organizations—may not be able
to use nostalgic events in the same way again (such
as to address anticipated revenue shortfalls or as
a way to engage fans and sponsors) as large-scale
nostalgia events like outdoor hockey games are
now managed and sanctioned at league (rather than
franchise) levels.
The Heritage Classic was a unique and wildly suc-
cessful event that happened to evoke a strong public
reaction at a particular point in time. The fact that
it has been replicated so many times speaks to the
potency of the template it helped to create. However,
the success that the Oilers realized almost certainly
has not and cannot be replicated elsewhere. Simply
put, outdoor hockey events are no longer particu-
larly unusual, special, or noteworthy. Even when
these events are put in locations such as baseball
stadiums, medieval squares, and ancient ruins, they
hardly raise an eyebrow anymore. Nor could a fran-
chise look to this particular kind of nostalgic event
without it being viewed both as derivative and with
a large degree of skepticism. Similarly, Edmonton
did not build off of the excitement of the event into
a broader winter tourism and leisure strategy and,
given that outdoor games are now quite ordinary, it
may be difficult for other winter destinations to use
outdoor hockey as a centerpiece for development.
More broadly, the Heritage Classic—and the
legacy it engendered—points to a larger issue in
events management, particularly those events that
incorporate heritage or nostalgic elements. In many
respects, heritage events must incorporate a Janus-
HERITAGE CLASSIC ICE HOCKEY EVENT 477
blogs.edmontonjournal.com/2013/11/21/taylor-hall-
was-in-the-commonwealth-stadium-crowd-watching-
heritage-classic/
McCurdy, B. (2013). Memories of Oilers past: The Heritage
Classic. The Edmonton Journal. Retrieved November
22, 2013, from http://blogs.edmontonjournal.com/2013/
11/22/memories-of-oilers-past-the-heritage-classic/
Moore, P. (2002). Practical nostalgia and the critique of com-
modification: On the “death of hockey” and the National
Hockey League. The Australian Journal of Anthropology,
13(3), 309–322.
Pinchevsky, T. (2013). ’03 Heritage Classic in Edmonton
started boom. Retrieved November 22, 2013, from http://
oilers.nhl.com/club/news.htm?id=692008
Ramshaw, G. (2009). The construction of sport heritage
attractions. Doctoral dissertation, University of Alberta,
Edmonton, Canada.
Ramshaw, G., & Hinch, T. (2006). Place identity and sport
tourism: The case of the Heritage Classic ice hockey
event. Current Issues in Tourism, 9(4/5), 399–418.
Tychkowski, R. (2013). After 10 years, Heritage Classic
remains the standard for players, fans, venue and extremely
frigid temperatures. The Edmonton Sun. Retrieved Novem-
ber 22, 2013, from http://www.edmontonsun.com/2013/
11/21/after-10-years-heritage-classic-remains-the-
standard-for-players-fans-venue-and-extremely-frigid-
temperatures
and promotion of the event. One of the organizers of the
Heritage Classic termed the 2001 game in East Lansing as
a “college prank” compared with the Heritage Classic and
subsequent outdoor events (Ramshaw, 2009).
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... The proliferation of outdoor hockey events across North America and Europe, for example, espouse the roots and traditions of the sport while also providing unique spectating experiences (Ramshaw & Hinch, 2006). These types of heritage events are also significant profit centres, as events like outdoor hockey games are significant money-makers for franchises and leagues alike, and often generate their own event-specific heritage merchandise (Ramshaw, 2014b). Roberts' (2014) discussions of the heritagization of popular music, the culture of sport (which is seemingly about the present), and the heritage of sport (which is seemingly about the past) are now virtually indistinguishable. ...
... Also, unique heritage products could potentially solidify fandom. One of the reasons for the launch of the outdoor hockey game trend in 2003 was that the Edmonton Oilers, organizer of the Heritage Classic, needed something special to retain their fan base after years of poor play (Ramshaw, 2014b). Indeed, sport heritage goods and services appear to have a very distinctive purpose beyond just being goods and services. ...
... Hinch and Higham (2005) position sport tourism as a particularly authentic cultural experience, in part, because of its resistance to commodification. By emphasizing the heritage attributes of a particular sporting place, practice, or experience, authenticity could clearly be part of the sport heritage experience, though its over-emphasis and explicit commodification could transform something special into just another tourism product (Ramshaw, 2014b) while also alienating local supporters. ...
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... In many respects it may also inspire further academic research, particularly into the festival aspects beyond the pitch such as the spectator experience. Furthermore, as many sports such as ice hockey have recreated and reenacted particular sporting practices in traditional/nostalgic sporting landscapes (see Ramshaw, 2014;Ramshaw & Hinch, 2006), contemporary event managers may wish to consider the cricket festival as a template for a "new" kind of sport heritage event. ...
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taylor-hall-was-in-the-commonwealth-stadium-crowd-watching-heritage-classic Memories of Oilers past: The Heritage Classic. The Edmonton Journal Practical nostalgia and the critique of com-modification: On the " death of hockey " and the National Hockey League
  • B Mccurdy
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blogs.edmontonjournal.com/2013/11/21/taylor-hall-was-in-the-commonwealth-stadium-crowd-watching-heritage-classic/ McCurdy, B. (2013). Memories of Oilers past: The Heritage Classic. The Edmonton Journal. Retrieved November 22, 2013, from http://blogs.edmontonjournal.com/2013/ 11/22/memories-of-oilers-past-the-heritage-classic/ Moore, P. (2002). Practical nostalgia and the critique of com-modification: On the " death of hockey " and the National Hockey League. The Australian Journal of Anthropology, 13(3), 309–322.
03 Heritage Classic in Edmonton started boom/ oilers.nhl.com/club/news.htm?id=692008 Ramshaw The construction of sport heritage attractions. Doctoral dissertation Place identity and sport tourism: The case of the Heritage Classic ice hockey event
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Taylor Hall was in the Commonwealth Stadium crowd watching Heritage Classic. The Edmonton
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Matheson, J. (2013). Taylor Hall was in the Commonwealth Stadium crowd watching Heritage Classic. The Edmonton Journal. Retrieved November 22, 2013, from http://
WinterCity strategy Yearning for yesterday: A sociology of nostalgia
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City of Edmonton. (2013). WinterCity strategy. Retrieved November 22, 2013 from http://www.edmonton.ca/city_ government/initiatives_innovation/wintercity-strategy.aspx Davis, F. (1979). Yearning for yesterday: A sociology of nostalgia. New York: Free Press.