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Canadian Hockey Fans Take It Outside, Celebrate End Of COVID Restrictions

INTERNATIONAL: Canadian hockey fans celebrated the end of most COVID-19 restrictions in predictable fashion on Sunday, packed into a football stadium in a raging blizzard to watch the Toronto Maple Leafs and Buffalo Sabres faceoff in the Heritage Classic.

It would be hard to imagine something more Canadian than 26,119 mostly Leaf’s supporters gathered in a stadium in a gritty Steeltown hard on the shores of a windswept Lake Ontario for a party that started with the 'Great One' Wayne Gretzky headlining the ceremonial puck drop.

Situated midway between Toronto and Buffalo, the Hammer, as locals call Hamilton, provided ideal neutral ice for a contest that featured the Maple Leafs, battling for the top spot in the Eastern Conference standings and the Sabres fighting to stay out of the basement.

Buffalo on two goals each from Peyton Krebs and Vinnie Hinostroza and a short-handed tally by Tage Thompson shocked the Leafs 5-2 but as it is in most of these nostalgic dips into hockey's outdoor past the result was not as important as the event itself.

With Ontario, Canada's most populous province, set to scrap virtually all COVID-19 related public health measures in eight days, including mask-wearing requirements, the day also rekindled memories of pre-pandemic norms.

The game was played at Tim Horton Stadium, named after Hall of Fame defenceman Tim Horton, who played for both Toronto and Buffalo and died in a single car crash in 1974, a decade after opening a donut and coffee shop in Hamilton that has grown into a Canadian institution with over 4,000 locations spanning 14 countries.

If Gretzky and Tim Horton were not enough to fan Canadian hockey passions the Maple Leafs won over the locals by arriving for the game in construction overalls paying homage to the city's steelworkers.

The NHL played its first regular-season outdoor game in 2003 and despite rave reviews resisted the temptation to franchise the showcase.

But what began as a one-off tribute to hockey’s past has grown into key dates on the NHL calendar.

"We always try to create a unique experience for the marketplace," Laurie Kepron, the NHL's senior vice-president, partnership marketing told Reuters. "We take the flavor of the local market and then through our partnerships and the game presentation amplify it."

Games have been held in iconic ballparks such as Chicago's Wrigley Field and Boston's Fenway Park.

They have been played in the biting cold of Edmonton and warmth of Los Angeles.

Nostalgia and the pull to be part of something unique has attracted huge crowds, including an NHL record of 105,000 at Michigan Stadium in 2014 while last year there were no spectators for two games played in Lake Tahoe due to COVID-19 restrictions.

The 35 outdoor games have generated a total attendance of over 1.7 million.

"We're driven by changing what we offer," said Kepron. "Every time we ask our partners to be thoughtful about building unique experiences.

"How can we offer something different for the fans?"

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