At its most basic, the NHL’s slate of annual regular-season outdoor games aims to bring both fans and players back to the roots of the sport, when hockey games were played on ponds, lakes and other bodies of water.
That messaging is most apparent in the league’s Heritage Classic series, which features exclusively Canadian teams and is set to host its 2019 edition on October 26 in Regina, Saskatchewan between the Calgary Flames and Winnipeg Jets.
The Heritage Classic was first hosted in 2003 and was the league’s first outdoor regular-season game, setting the stage for the expansion of the concept into the U.S. via the Winter Classic and the Stadium Series games.
While the event has been held periodically since – in 2011, 2014, 2016 – the relevance of the Heritage Classic has continued to grow in the eyes of the league, Canadian hockey fans, and sponsors.
“The Heritage Classic is so symbolic of our shared culture and passion for the game of hockey in Canada,” said Laurie Kepron, who as the NHL’s group vice president of partnership marketing oversees the league’s partners in Canada. “There is so much pride for the game and there is a deep connection with the sport.”
It is that tie in that has made the event a success both in terms of attendance and sponsorship activation.
“In terms of the regular season, the Heritage Classic is absolutely destination viewing for Canadian hockey fans,” said Chris Wakefield, the lead regional manager for Tim Hortons Canada. “It’s not just the fact that it’s a special game or there is a special jersey for it, it just really ties back to the nostalgia that Canadians have for hockey, whether you played the sport or you didn’t.”
Tim Hortons is one of the most invested brands in the sport of hockey in Canada, with a company history that dates back to 1964 when it was co-founded by Tim Horton, who played 24 seasons in the NHL. In 2011 it became the title sponsor of the Heritage Classic as well as the NHL’s official quick-serve restaurant coffee, donuts, and breakfast of the league in Canada. It also has deals with all seven Canadian NHL teams as well as with Hockey Canada, which helps support a significant children’s hockey program with more than 100,000 players each season across Canada.
The restaurant chain is leaning into that for its activation around the Heritage Classic, bringing some of those youth players onto a separate rink alongside the NHL rink to play during the game and intermissions. It is also working with Upper Deck to give any fan who participates in its activation at the fanfest to receive their trading card.
“The name Heritage Classic means something, and for fans that means wanting to tie back to those connections and emotions they had when playing, watching or coaching hockey,” Wakefield said.
The fact that the Heritage Classic has stressed that passion for hockey has helped the event have a huge draw for Canadian fans. The 2003 game, held in Edmonton, set an at-the-time NHL record with an attendance of 57,167. The subsequent games in 2011 in Calgary, 2014 in Vancouver and 2016 in Winnipeg drew 41,022, 54,194 and 33,240 fans, respectively.
This year marks the first time that the Heritage Classic will be played at a site outside of an NHL’s team market – last year’s Winter Classic held at Notre Dame was the league’s first outdoor game to be held in a neutral market.
But even though there is not a hometown team in the immediate area to support – Regina is located roughly seven hours from Calgary and six hours from Winnipeg – as of Wednesday, only a few tickets remain available for the game, which is being held at the 33,350-seat Mosaic Stadium.
“There is an element of meeting in the middle between Calgary and Winnipeg at a neutral site that I find to be very Canadian,” Kepron said. “It also helps our corporate partners as well, who are national brands with interest in national coverage, so tentpole events in major markets outside of a team market is a great opportunity for them to connect with different fans who are their customers.”
Imperial Oil, which became a league-level sponsor of the NHL earlier this year, will also be leaning into nostalgia.
While the company has been supporting hockey in Canada for more than 80 years, this will mark the first time that as it activates against its Esso brand an NHL event.
The brand will have an activation in which fans can dress up in different helmets, gloves, and jerseys from different eras of hockey to essentially travel back in time, snapping photos that they can share on social media.
“The fact that there is such a long rich history of hockey, we want to tap into that with the activation,” said Susan Di Giorgio,
Jon Harding, Imperial Oil public affairs advisor, said the connection to hockey is in “the national fabric of Canada,” which helps to weave the company’s relationship to this event.
“Those things that come up when you see an outdoor hockey game, they all hold true to Canada in the winter – it’s something almost everybody can relate to,” Harding said. “The chance to celebrate that in this unique manner excites people.”
NHL partners activating at the Heritage Classic include Tim Hortons, Kraft Heinz, Honda, Scotiabank, Esso, Safeway, Nestle, Danone, Kruger Products, Canadian Tire, PepsiCo, Pinty’s, and Rogers.
Kepron said there are some distinct ways that set apart how NHL Canadian partners activate against the Heritage Classic than say some of the league’s U.S. partners might do so at the Winter Classic or Stadium Series.
For example, many of the activations are focused around active participation in a hockey skill, whether that’s a passing or shooting competition, which fans go crazy for.
Kepron said that might be due to the game itself, which puts fans in a certain environment that “suspends their reality.”
“It’s aspirational in a way, and whether that comes from playing the game or participating in some way, these activations make you feel like you’re living a piece of the NHL,” Kepron said.
Wakefield said that while there are only subtle differences between the outdoor games in Canada and the U.S., that difference stands out to those hardcore Canadian hockey fans.
“It’s as simple as the design of the jerseys – with the Heritage Classic you see these throwback designs, with the Stadium Series it may be a bit more forward-thinking in terms of colors and designs,” Wakefield said. “It goes back to what exactly these games are helping to celebrate.”