Nearly four decades after “Wild” Bill Hunter made a pitch to buy the St. Louis Blues and move them to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan finally landed its first NHL game. The Oct. 26 game between the Winnipeg Jets and Calgary Flames was the first Heritage Classic outdoor game to be held in a Canadian city that wasn’t also home to an NHL franchise.
Heading up the team that pulled off the near-impossible was Tim Reid, CEO of Evraz Place, a 100-acre, sport complex and exhibition grounds in Regina. He said it all started with a phone call to the league offices. “We reached out to the NHL and said ‘we’d like to take you on a tour of Mosaic Stadium. We think you should come to Regina.’ Six months later they did,” he says.
The newest sports facility in Canada—Mosaic hosted its first Saskatchewan Roughriders game two years ago—is owned by the City of Regina and operated by Evraz. It seats 33,350 for football and will be expanded to hold about 40,000 for hockey. The weekend also featured a Western Hockey League game the following day between the Regina Pats and the Calgary Hitmen.
The fact that Regina had experience running major events, including the Tim Hortons Brier in 2018, a pair of sold-out Garth Brooks concerts this past summer and had been awarded the 2020 Grey Cup, gave the NHL confidence that Regina could pull it off, Reid said. Jets and Flames season ticket holders were given first crack at tickets and the final crowd was split evenly between Jets fans, Flames fans and hockey fans from around Saskatchewan. Of course, Regina’s first-ever NHL game was a sell out.
This wasn’t Reid’s first rodeo. He ran Rexall Place in Edmonton for three-and-a-half years and was part of the team that hosted the first outdoor game in Canada in 2003, when the Edmonton Oilers hosted the Montreal Canadiens. (The bigger attraction, however, was the return of Wayne Gretzky in an Oilers jersey as part of the alumni game.)
John Hopkins, CEO of the Regina and District Chamber of Commerce, said the spectacle will provide an approximately $20-million boost to the local economy. “People are football crazy but hockey is huge here, too. Hockey is a big, big thing. It’s exciting to be a part of it all. A lot of people will be wearing jerseys for whatever team they support just be a part of an NHL game,” he says. “I don’t expect we’ll see a lot of Toronto Maple Leafs or Montreal Canadiens jerseys.”
Hunter, a legendary pioneer of hockey in Canada—he was one of the first owners to commit to the World Hockey Association in 1972 with the Oilers—ultimately failed to bring the Blues to Saskatchewan but that didn’t mean there weren’t a few bottles of champagne popped around the province last June when the Blues won the franchise’s first Stanley Cup. Three players—Brayden Schenn, Tyler Bozak and Jaden Schwartz—were born in Saskatchewan.
The Jets hosted a very successful Heritage Classic game of their own in 2016 so when the NHL called with this opportunity, Dorian Morphy, the team’s vice-president of marketing, says they agreed faster than it takes Patrik Laine to unleash a one-timer from the top of the circle. “When the NHL wants to make us part of something that will be highlighted to eyeballs across the country, why wouldn’t we do it? When the NHL comes knocking, we always feel honoured,” he says.