The roof was open, the air crisp, and the snow fake – it may not become a classic, in the truest sense of the word, but the National Hockey League’s Heritage Classic in Vancouver could become the trampoline for one of two struggling Canadian teams to make the uphill sprint for the postseason.
The Heritage Classic, which pits the Vancouver Canucks against the Ottawa Senators on Sunday at BC Place, is the last of six such outdoor spectacles that NHL has staged this season.
The game, however, is in part a sideshow to the bigger question of the future of the Vancouver Canucks, which made a major pivot this past week from a team aiming for the playoffs to one staring at a significant remake and rebuild, starting with reports of a potential trade of Ryan Kesler. Another pillar possibly on the block is Alex Edler.
And then there is Roberto Luongo, who even though he returned this year has never pictured himself finishing his hockey-playing days in a Canucks jersey. Luongo suffered what appears to be the latest diminution on Saturday, with hot backup Eddie Lack appearing set to start the Sunday afternoon game, though that had not been officially declared.
Speaking with reporters, Luongo said he had looked forward to this game all season and had always wanted to play in an outdoor game. He deflected questions of goalie controversy, the swirl that defined all of last season. Lack gave up one goal in 120 minutes of regulation play on Wednesday and Friday.
“I don’t want to go through this whole thing again,” said Luongo.
Thing is, three years after the Canucks nearly won the Stanley Cup, local fans have all but given up on this team. A local paper blared on its front page on Friday about how three-quarters of devotees have given up on this season. This jibes with the number-crunching at Sportsclubstats.com, which gives the Canucks and the Senators about a one-in-four chance to make the postseason.
It would be the first time in six years that Canucks owner, billionaire Francesco Aquilini, does not enjoy postseason gate receipts to bolster the Canucks bank account.
“Maybe this will help us,” said Canucks coach John Tortorella after a light practice at Noon PT Saturday, which followed a 2-1 Canucks loss to Minnesota at next-door Rogers Arena Friday night.
Tortorella hopes the atmosphere, the sense of a freer game of shinny and the outdoor elements will revive his team, which has returned from the Winter Olympics scoring just two goals in two games. The depth of the decline can be sketched in many ways, though perhaps none starker than to note that not one player on the Canucks first line – Henrik and Daniel Sedin, and Alex Burrows – has scored a goal in 2014.
“You can’t help but enjoy a situation like this,” said Tortorella of the novelty of a hockey game in a domed football stadium. He added that despite tinkering with lines earlier in the year, he is sticking by his top trio: “They feel the responsibility.”
As of early afternoon on Saturday, as the Canucks and their families skated, the setting appeared to be appropriately winter wonderland, even if the snow was in fact cotton and organizers struggled to sell some of the last thousands of tickets in the 50,000-plus capacity BC Place.
Less than 24 hours before the game, Ticketmaster warned there were “not many left” but a buyer could find six tickets in a row, near the bottom of the top section in a corner, at $188.20 per.
So with the less-than-marquee matchup, one can see how seats with a distant view priced at nearly $200 might not sell as easily as the latest version of the iPhone.
And while Saturday night’s penultimate outdoor game features two of the best at Soldier Field, the Chicago Blackhawks hosting the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Heritage Classic features two teams who are non-entities in discussions of hockey in May and June.
The Canucks and Senators square off Sunday at 1 p.m. PT, and for all of Vancouver’s well-chronicled problems, Ottawa’s in at least as much trouble, standing farther out of eighth place than Vancouver. The Senators, post Olympics, picked up right where they left off, getting beat up, this time by Detroit, 6-1 on Thursday.
The Canucks, meanwhile, managed to snap a seven-game losing streak on Wednesday, their worst slump in 15 years, but their inability to score (the win was booked with a 1-0 shutout of St. Louis) goes back to the winter of 2012.
The extended nuclear winter on the score sheet has girded fans for something new rather than more of the same. Kesler, this week voted most popular athlete in a local weekly, is beloved but fans know his departure might be the only ticket to a return to success in the near-ish future. So the story of Sunday really has little to do with who wins and is more prelude and pretty pictures for television ahead of the real Canucks news, if a Kesler move does in fact unfurl by Wednesday at 3 p.m. ET, the NHL trade deadline.