My Journey to (and at) the 2022 NHL Heritage Classic

The National Hockey League staged its latest outdoor game yesterday, the 2022 Heritage Classic, the bone thrown to Canada’s fanbase every two or three years. This triennial edition pitted my Toronto Maple Leafs against the Buffalo Sabres at Hamilton’s Tim Horton’s Field – home of the Canadian Football League’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats. Fortunately, I was gifted a ticket to the game, one of the perks of running this site over the past quarter-century.

The drive from my place northeast of Toronto down to Hamilton is about 90 minutes. I started getting ready to head out the door about three hours before game time, leaving me plenty of time to arrive on time — three layers up top, long johns, and three pairs of socks should keep me warm for the game. I was all set. Then, out of nowhere, I started to stress out…

Where am I going to park? Should I park somewhere far away and Uber? Hold on… there’s a free shuttle, that’s great, but what if I don’t get there before the last shuttle leaves? What if it’s jam-packed, and I’m stuck, crammed in a tight space with a bunch of others for hours waiting around forever for the bus to the game? What if? What if?! What if?!?

This isn’t usually like me, but I’ve noticed in the last few months that even the tiniest of complications in a plan throw me into a panic. This little one almost caused me to bail on going to the game altogether.

Seriously… what happened to me?

Is it because I enjoyed the warm cocoon of staying home and not doing anything due to pandemic restrictions, perhaps a little more than most others did? Or maybe this is just something that happens to people as they get older? Perhaps I’m still not quite over the sudden loss of my father, and my brain isn’t quite working the way it used to, burying my grief, forcing its way out in these odd little bursts whenever things aren’t perfect… I’m betting it’s some combination of all of the above, though perhaps the last one has a lot more to do with it than the other two. After some reassurances from my lovely wife that everything would be fine and that I’d have a good time, I hopped in the car for my solo drive down Highway 407.

Shortly after I left, the heavy snowfall began, and so too did the irrational panic. Do I want to drive 90 minutes in the snow to sit 3 hours in the snow only to ultimately drive another 90 minutes in the snow just to end up where I wanted to stay all along? Wait, it’s saying I might not have enough fuel to get all the way there? And now the dashboard is showing my wiper fluid is low! At some point, my mind just shut all those destructive thoughts off, and I turned into a thoughtless zombie. I cruised along almost as if I were on autopilot, watching the GPS countdown the kilometres until I reached Hamilton’s Eastgate Square, a shopping centre where I would be parking to catch the shuttle bus.

Walking from the shuttle bus drop-off to Tim Horton’s Field

Fortunately, the shuttle bus process was a breeze. Ample parking at the plaza with no long lines or crowds to get on the bus, I sat across the way from a father and his young daughter. They were reminiscing about how they once lived in Hamilton and pointed out all the places they had experienced wonderful family memories together while we all rode down Main Street. Judging by the approximate age of the daughter, these memories couldn’t have happened more than four to five years ago, but when you’re a child, that might as well have been a hundred. I immediately was transported back into my past, driving through our old hometown with my parents. In my mind I could see the North York Chuck E. Cheese I loved going to as a kid and remembering that time when we went back to it a few years after moving away, suddenly it didn’t seem so special anymore, it was small and ordinary, I didn’t understand what had happened…

Twenty minutes on the bus and I was at Tim Horton’s Field, a bit of a crowd to get through the security gates, but that’s to be expected. They took my unopened bottle of water away from me at the gates; my wife gave it to me after she had heard on the radio that bottled water was allowed in the stadium. I briefly made my case to the security guard at the gates, “but it’s unopened,” “I heard it was allowed,” I claimed despite not having looked at the policy myself. I was careful not to raise much of a fuss beyond those two quick comments; I loathe it when employees are given a hard time, I didn’t want to be part of the problem. I quickly let it go and moved on, entering the stadium as the Land Acknowledgement ceremony took place. I grabbed a slice of pizza and opted for a Coors Light to replace my confiscated water (because they’re practically the same thing, right commenters?) before making my way up to my seat. Upper deck. Off to the side. Front row. Brushed a bit of snow off my seat (the first time I’ve had to do that for a Leafs game), and away we go.

Waiting in line to enter the stadium, I learned masks work well at keeping your face warm

The view was good. If this were a Tiger-Cats game, I’d peg our spot at around the 30-yard line, but for hockey, I was more in line with some of the on-field decorations about twenty feet behind the end boards. I’ve always thought the best seat in a sporting venue is any first row of the upper deck. Of course, being an outdoor hockey game, the rink itself is far off in the distance, but you go into these events knowing that’s how she goes. In other “that’s how she goes” news, it was below freezing, it was windy, and it was snowing. Yes, I know, I’m a Canadian, I should be “fine” with that (or at the very least, polite enough about it that nobody would know I wasn’t okay with it), but sitting stationary in those conditions, it starts to affect even the most hardened of my compatriot hosers. Brrrrr, eh?

In-person, both teams looked fantastic in their special retro-style uniforms, the Maple Leafs in a dark navy blue 1917-inspired Toronto Hockey Club (though they used an “ARENAS” logo on their chest) and the Sabres in a cream-coloured “fauxback” with blue lids. Toronto looked like they belonged in navy blue (at least in person with natural lighting), the blue-on-blue “ARENAS” lettering was invisible from that distance giving the team the simple white “T” on a blue jersey look they wanted all along. Buffalo looked great as well, though I think we could’ve done without the cream-coloured base of the sweaters, I get it, it’s supposed to be a traditional look but it just makes it look dirty, white is fine. On the stadium floor, designs were referencing Hamilton’s “Steel City” tradition with the incorporation of rivets and sharp-edged fonts, a large decal reading “THE HAMMER” (one of the city’s nicknames) was placed just beyond one goal and directly in front of my seat. Some of that Canada vs. USA angle was also played up with walkways decorated patriotically for both nations on either side of the rink. My favourite bit might have been the traditional artwork below the scoreboard showing Sabres and Leafs players wearing their Heritage Classic uniforms.

National anthems prior to the 2022 Heritage Classic at Hamilton’s Tim Horton’s Field
“The Hammer”, one of Hamilton’s many nicknames, added onto the stadium floor

A pre-game ceremony included a speech from Wayne Gretzky which he started off with “last year I lost my father…”, ah I almost made it a whole hour without being reminded about what I too had recently lost. The Canadian National Anthem included a choir made up of the 2022 Canadian Women’s Olympic Hockey Team, gold medalists just one month ago, a nice moment.

After a scoreless first period I went to tour the concourse, perhaps to purchase (or at least look at) some of the merchandise for the game but I couldn’t. I turned down the stairs and saw the human gridlock that was waiting for me, I let out an audible and decisive “Nope.” before turning around back to the relative comfort and space waiting for me in my cold, plastic seat.

Both the Leafs in navy blue and the Sabres in cream white looked great out on the ice

Things got interesting in the second period as the teams traded a pair of goals including Auston Matthews’ 45th of the season. Each goal was followed by fireworks and the team’s traditional goal horn and celebration music, a feature unique to neutral-site contests despite the fact this would go down in the history books as a Sabres home game.

I spent the second intermission and most of the third period refereeing an intense game within myself. “You should just go; you’re cold and have a long drive home” was captaining Team A facing off against Team B’s “you’re here, you’re at a hockey game, lots of people would love to be in this position, just enjoy it and forget about the other stuff.” Eventually, I received a text message from a friend in town to catch the game, which suggested we get some post-game suds at the hotel bar where they were staying, “sounds good,” I responded. It looks like Team B gets the victory.

The bottom of the scoreboard included classic player artwork which I absolutely loved

Alas, a third period collapse by my Maple Leafs (absolutely shocking, I say!) was punctuated by an empty net goal with two minutes remaining. With my boys in navy blue down 5-2 with no signs of life left in them (and my thumbs so frozen I could no longer operate my phone correctly), I headed for the exit to get a jump on the crowds to the shuttle buses.

Again, the bus experience was a breeze. Kudos to Hamilton’s public transportation system or whoever set this all up. Rode back to the mall, got in my car, plugged in the directions to the hotel bar, and it turned out it was thirty minutes in the opposite direction. It was already late, so I decided it was time to call this day done, “I think I’m just going to head home,” I texted back, and so I did. Fueled up, I replenished my washer fluid, another 90 minutes in the snow, but there was no panic this time. Instead, I was excited and optimistic. This time my destination was my warm, cozy home and my family. I liked this destination.

Something happened to me in the last few months; I went from looking forward to and enjoying outings and events to, well, not. I don’t want to blame it on my father’s sudden and unexpected death this past January. Still, I honestly can’t imagine what else it could be to cause such a significant change in my day-to-day personality. During my drive home in the dark, I instinctively went to call my dad. Typically, I would have called him during a moment like this for two reasons: to keep me company and for him to know I was safe during the drive. I would have told him about the game, sitting in the cold, and anything else that would have been new in my life, what the kids were up to in hockey and dance, how it would be great to have either one of us fly out so we could see each other again. Dad would tell me how frigidly cold it was in Alberta and how he’s looking forward to spring, about the wildlife spotted on the camera set up outside their house, and the latest gems found researching literally any historical topic. Before we’d know it, those 90 minutes would be up, and I’d suddenly be home. “Okay, I’m pulling into the driveway now. Thanks for the company.” “No problem, have a good night, talk to you later.” We were like that, talking for hours and not even noticing that the time passed. I missed that last night, I’m missing many things lately, and there will be more and more of that as time goes on.

I got home relatively firm in my resolve that hockey’s outdoor classics were just not for me. It seemed like everyone else was having a wonderful time, and that’s great; I’m glad most others enjoyed it. I’m certainly more than happy to see all of the special uniforms and logos and whatnot that accompany these events… but in the future, I’ll be seeing them from the comfort of my office chair, secure and warm within these four walls, where I’m happy. At least until the day comes where I feel more like myself again, if that day ever comes.