Jordan Martinook was there at the beginning.
The Carolina Hurricanes forward was 11 years old in November 2003, when the inaugural Heritage Classic was played in Edmonton, Alberta, between the Oilers and Montreal Canadiens. It was the first regular-season outdoor game in NHL history — the first of many — and Martinook and his family were at Commonwealth Stadium, cheering and shivering on a day when the Oilers also hosted an all-star game that featured past stars Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier.
“It felt like it was minus-40 degrees Celsius and we only stayed for an hour and a half,” Martinook said this week, smiling. ”Toes were frozen, hands were frozen, wind chill was insane.
“It should be a little nicer for the one here. And, finally it is here.”
The 2023 Stadium Series, that is, the outdoor game Saturday between the Hurricanes and Washington Capitals at N.C. State’s Carter-Finley Stadium.
It could be about 40 degrees, Fahrenheit, when the game begins about 8:20 p.m., with more than 57,000 fans packed into the Wolfpack’s cozy football stadium to take it all in.
“It should be pretty crazy in there,” Martinook said.
The Hurricanes will go into the game as the Metropolitan Division leaders, as they have been much of the 2022-23 season. The Caps should again be without their captain, Alex Ovechkin, who returned to Russia early this week to be with his ailing father, who died Wednesday.
The Canes and Caps faced off Tuesday in Washington, Carolina taking a 3-2 road win. The Canes then surged past the Canadiens 6-2 Thursday at PNC Arena with four third-period goals as winger Seth Jarvis notched his first career NHL hat trick.
Ovechkin’s absence will be felt — by the Caps and by ABC, which is televising the Stadium Series matchup. But the game Saturday should be super competitive, and the Caps surely would like to spoil the big party in Raleigh and pick up the two points with a win.
As much as the Stadium Series is a spectacle, it’s no exhibition. It’s a regular-season game.
“I know it’s going to be a cool atmosphere,” Canes center Sebastian Aho said Thursday. “I know it’s going to be a special day for all of us. All of North Carolina seems to be really pumped about it.
“For me, I’ll try to soak it all in and have fun. We want to play a good hockey game but at the same time enjoy it as best we can.”
There was a time when the NHL decision-makers were hesitant to bring an outdoor game to Raleigh. But Tom Dundon, the Dallas billionaire and Canes owner, was persistent after buying the team from Peter Karmanos in January 2018 and did all the right things to see that the NHL was convinced — spending to the salary cap, making the Canes a playoff team that can contend for the Cup, hiring Rod Brind’Amour as coach and significantly boosting attendance at home games.
There was little doubt the Canes and Raleigh could host a major event. The 2011 NHL All-Star Weekend was a major success. The Stanley Cup final games in 2002 and then 2006, when the Canes won the Cup, were eye-opening in the way the Triangle and Hurricanes fans embraced the moment.
In February 2020, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman announced a Stadium Series game had been awarded to the Hurricanes and would be held at Carter-Finley. The pandemic stalled things, eventually pushing the game back to 2023, but its here now.
It’s time for Saturday night in Raleighwood, as the Canes’ Andrei Svechnikov likes to say.
“You definitely have to enjoy it. This doesn’t come around very often and you need to take it all in,” Brind’Amour said Thursday.
Canes captain Jordan Staal played in two outdoor games, both Winter Classics, when he was with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“The first one was in Buffalo (2008) and it snowed and there were massive holes on the ice and some other wrinkles, but was an experience I’ll never forget,” he said. “The other one was in Pittsburgh (2011) and it rained on us, so that was a different kind of experience.
“But things worked out. Both of the games turned out to be a great success.”
There could be a few “bumps and challenges” Saturday at Carter-Finley, Staal said.
“But to have a game like this is great for the city, our franchise and our brand,” Staal said. “I hope we put on a good show.”