By George Johnson, Calgary Herald February 17, 2011
Nothing topped the tuque.
Not the game's greatestever buddy reunion, with Gretz and Mess and Coff and the Flower and Big Bird turning back time, the years stripped away, kids again for an hour or so, kibitzing on a frozen milieu that once-upon-a-time defined not only them but two eras in a country's imagination.
Not the 57,167 committable souls huddled in Commonwealth Stadium who shelled out up to $135 for the privilege of sitting in wind chill minus-19-to-30-degree C temperatures since 2 p.m. in the afternoon.
Not the polar ambience or the yesteryear star power or the "November to Remember" tag line or who actually won the game (4-3 Canadiens).
No. What people best remember of Nov. 22, 2003, the first Heritage Classic to be staged, is that tuque.
Especially the cute, fluffy purple pompom on top.
"I've gotta to say, now, seven years later, more people ask me about that tuque than anything else,'' admits Jose Theodore, stripping off gear inside the Minnesota Wild's dressing quarters during a recent game at the Scotiabank Saddledome. "I've played for four teams now and that's still the picture I sign the most.''
In 2003, Jose Theodore was 27, at the peak of his puck-stopping powers, coming off a careerdefining Vezina and Hart Trophy season, the toast of Montreal, Patrick Roy's heir apparent for sainthood. It seemed at that moment, frozen (quite literally) in time, that the hockey world was his for the beckoning.
"A lot has happened in my career since then,'' concedes Theodore, who since toiled in Colorado and Washington before landing in St. Paul. "But when someone hands me a photo to autograph it always seems to be the one with the tuque on.
"The idea actually came from one of my brothers. They wanted to do a Vintage game, that was the purpose, right? So he said 'It'd be pretty cool if you knitted a tuque. Remember the old pictures of Georges Vezina with a tuque on? The black and white ones?' And I did. Of course I did. It seemed really cool to wear a vintage tuque. I mean, when else are you ever going to get the chance?
"Well, I didn't knit anything but when we showed up in Edmonton they had tuques like the ones in the pictures. And I thought 'That's perfect!' "
The plan was to wear the tuque during warm-up, strictly as a lark. Theodore used double-sided tape to affix it onto the top of his goaltending helmet. Miraculously, it held fast the entire game.
"My goal was just to have one picture or one hockey card with the tuque on,'' he says now. "Just as a memory. For me, you know? If anyone else thought it looked kinda cool, great. But after warmup, everyone was like 'Yeah, it looks AMAZING! It doesn't look silly. Wear it during the game.' And I thought 'Why not?'
"Honestly, I didn't think it'd be a big deal. Then right after, they asked for the tuque to put in the Hall of Fame, reporters wanted to ask me questions about it, everyone seemed to be talking about it.
"It WAS a big deal.''
What will define Sunday's second edition of the Heritage Classic at McMahon Stadium, make it special . . . the weather, the ice conditions, the score, is anyone's guess.
But Miikka Kiprusoff and Carey Price, find your own schtick.
The headgear gimmick belongs to Theodore.
"Usually, in any other year, they'd sell 7,000 or 7,500 or so of those tuques in Montreal. After I wore one in that game, they sold something like 175,000! Crazy. I had no idea.'' A small smile. "If I had, I would've asked Puma for a contract deal before, for the exposure it generated.
"No, seriously . . . it's fun to look back on it.''
Because of the sub-arctic conditions, the game was touch-and-go to be held at all until a half-hour beforehand.
"For players on the bench, they had big heaters for guys to warm their hands,'' recalls Theodore.
"They go for 60 seconds hard and come back. But for us as goalies . . . it was REALLY cold. I had to wear extra layers. Two little gloves under my glove and blocker. Two extra pair of pants. It was so cold water would literally freeze on your jersey.
"As a goalie, usually you do everything the same. We're creatures of habit. But a game like that really takes you out of your comfort level. It's a real challenge for a goalie.
"I remember giving up a goal in the third period. Usually, you feel the puck. You know if you have it. But I didn't have it and I didn't know it because I couldn't feel it. And the ice gets really bad.
"It's all about the weather. You look at the (Winter Classic) this year in Pittsburgh and it was raining. In Buffalo it was nice, snowing, really pretty. When it gets really cold it creates extra problems, but it's extra-special, too. Like when you were a kid out on the outdoor rink.''
For the current Flames and Canadiens, the man in the tuque who helped make '03 such a memorable slice of Canadiana has once sage piece of advice -forget the weather and accept the conditions, good or bad, and embrace a moment that will not come your way again.
"It is, quite literally, a once-inlifetime experience,'' says Jose Theodore. "So just go with it. Enjoy yourself. The points are important, sure, because they count and a lot of teams are still fighting for playoffs.
"I'm really glad we won.
"Not just for the two points, though. Because 20 years from now, 30 years, that game will still being shown on ESPN Classic. And it makes it much easier to watch if you win.''
George Johnson is the herald's sports columnist. e-mail him at GJohnson@calGaryherald.com