The Northern Classic
Last month, Oil Barons head coach and general manager Gord Thibodeau and Barons assistant coach Tom Keca took in the NHL Winter Classic in Ann Arbour, Michigan. The outdoor spectacle had the highest attendance for an NHL game in history, but it wasn't the first time the pair had been to an outdoor game. Both of them coached in the AJHL's only outdoor game, the highest attended game in league history: The Northern Classic.
On November 26, 2010 more than 5,700 spectators braved the cold weather at MacDonald Island Park in Fort McMurray to watch the hometown Oil Barons take on the Drayton Valley Thunder. Just like in the NHL outdoor games, both teams wore special retro-style uniforms and the game garnered national attention. It took more than 180 volunteers and 70 different partners coming together to back the event, and as a result, fans and players alike were treated to a truly remarkable experience.
“I thought the setup was outstanding,” said Thibodeau. “The amount of help and volunteers was just amazing. The kids that played in that game, you talk to them and it was one of the highlights of their career. It was a great night. The weather cooperated until virtually the end of the game when it got a little chilly, but it was a great atmosphere.The fans were extremely loud and supportive.”
It took just 54 minutes for the tickets for the game to sell out, but it wasn’t just the fans who were excited for an outdoor hockey game.
“There was definitely an anticipation,” said Thibodeau. “Our players were talking about it right from day one of camp.When we got into camp in August, players were extremely excited at the possibility of having that game and as we got closer and closer to, the magnitude of it really took shape.”
Defenceman Colton Parayko —now a member of the University of Alaska-Fairbanks Nanooks and a third round draft pick of the St. Louis Blues— was in his rookie season with the Barons in 2010. Parayko helped the Barons defeat the Thunder 4-2 at the Northern Classic and he considers that game one of the fondest memories of his junior hockey career.
“It was unbelievable,” said Parayko. “Just because everything that was put in into it and everything that was done to make it a huge success. It was unbelievable how it all came together and worked out so well.”
AJHL vice president of hockey operations Fran Gow was head coach of the Thunder at the Northern Classic. Gow said the experience was unlike any other junior hockey game he’d been in.
“Just being out in that setting brings back a lot of memories of when you were younger playing on the outdoor rink,” said Gow. “It was a great event and a good time. When you have that many people at the game, you know you’re a part of something special.”
While the Northern Classic game was won by the Oil Barons, they weren’t the only winners that day. The volunteers, fans, players, businesses, organizations, league and community that helped make the dream of an outdoor game a reality, earned the biggest achievement of all.