'This can turn a season around': Oilers fans on a Heritage Classic with unexpectedly high stakes

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Had the start of the Edmonton Oilers season gone to plan, the Heritage Classic might have felt like an exhibition, a festive, en plein air dismantling of a bitter rival by a team destined for the sunlit uplands of Stanley Cup greatness.

Instead, fans arriving early to Commonwealth Stadium Sunday were preparing for something that was unexpected a few weeks ago — a desperate contest with major stakes.

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The Oilers and Calgary Flames entered Sunday’s outdoor showcase with miserable respective records of 1-5-1 and 2-5-1. For some fans, the sunny skies and festival atmosphere belied real fear of the home team leaving the stadium with just one win in eight games.

“I think the season definitely started off on the wrong foot for sure,” said Oilers fan Trevor Sleno, who was celebrating his anniversary with fiancée Jen Boyce. “I’m hoping this is actually the turning point for the season.”

Boyce said she was buoyed by the weather — balmy compared to the 2003 edition of the outdoor game — and Connor McDavid’s slated return from injury.

She was nevertheless feeling more nerves than expected.

“I think it’s kind of almost a common misconception that … this isn’t a regular season game, and that it’s just for fun,” she said. “So that puts a lot more pressure on it.”

Jen Boyce and Trevor Sleno outside Commonwealth Stadium ahead of the Oct. 29, 2023, Heritage Classic between the Oilers and Flames. Jonny Wakefield/Postmedia jpg

Scott and Michelle Davis — who travelled from Lethbridge to celebrate Scott’s 40th birthday — were excited for a high stakes Battle of Alberta.

“Both teams are desperate for a win, really,” he said. “Both teams haven’t come out of the gate very well at all. If you listen to Calgary’s team, they’re saying ‘we’ve been playing bad’ and apologizing to their fans, Oilers are doing the same thing. Both teams are flat, and this is a big game. This can turn a season around for sure.”

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“It’s going to be cool,” he added. “You’re outside, watching NHL hockey.”

Added Michelle, “And Battle of Alberta. And I get to see Leon Draisaitl.”

Longtime Oilers fan Henry Stephens said he was withholding judgment on the 2023-24 team until the 25-game mark.

“You’ve got to give any team 25 games,” he said outside Commonwealth’s main entrance. “They’re just coming out of the rack. After 25 games I’ll start criticizing. But before that, you’ve got to give them a chance.”

In the 1960s, Stephens grew up playing hockey on the outdoor rink at Lauderdale Community League — an uncommon experience for kids his nieces and nephews’ age.

“It’s neat. It brings back old memories … you’re freezing, but you’re out there.”

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