Back in the deep freeze

ROBIN BROWNLEE -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 11:52 AM ET

MILWAUKEE -- The last time Steve Staios pulled on his long underwear to play outdoors, the Edmonton Oilers had two points on the line against the Montreal Canadiens at the Heritage Classic. The stakes will be different in front of an expected crowd of 30,000 at Ivor Wynne Stadium in Hamilton today than when 57,167 frigid fans watched the Habs beat the Oilers 4-3, but they're every bit as important to the native of Steeltown.

Staios and Oilers teammate Eric Brewer are hitting the freeze with current and former NHLers like Doug Gilmour, Curtis Joseph, Martin Brodeur, Marty McSorley, Todd Bertuzzi, Bob Probert, Rob Blake and Mike Comrie for the Canadian Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund and Camp Trillium, a camp for children living with cancer.

At a time when the NHL is in big trouble, the public is turned off and players are perceived as money-grubbing mercenaries who've lost touch with fans, Staios and friends have come up with their version of the Heritage Classic, dubbed Our Game to Give. Not everybody is on the take.

"I think I'm getting too much credit," said Staios. "I'm just the local guy. I've got a few players to come out and I've tried to promote the game. There's a lot of people who've been behind this."

With 20,000 tickets sold as of Thursday, organizers are hoping to write a cheque for $100,000 for the charities after expenses are paid.

BATTLING CANCER

Camp Trillium is a cause close to Staios. He purchased a suite at Copps Coliseum so children battling cancer could attend Hamilton Bulldogs games. One of the youngsters Staios spent an afternoon with at Hamilton's home-opener this season, an 11-year-old boy, succumbed to the disease shortly after. That left an impression.

"I've been on kind of a mission here because it's such a worthwhile cause," Staios said. "Ever since that day, I guess I've been driven to try to do even more to help out.

"Fortunately for me, this hasn't been about a family member or a friend. This summer, knowing the lockout was coming, I wanted to get involved with charities. The factor that sparked me to get more involved was this little boy losing his life. I just want to help out."

SUCCESSFUL TOUR

The game, which will be televised on TSN, has been in the works since last October. Brad May, who staged a successful tour for charity in B.C., will play.

Ryan Smyth, who cut short his four-game tour for charity last month because of poor attendance, wants to play, but he's a wild scard because his wife, Stacey, is expecting their second child. She's due April 12, but indications are the baby could come early.

The assumption when crowds failed to show for Smyth's effort was that fans were making a statement about the NHLPA and cancellation of the season. Staios doesn't see it that way.

"I don't think it was as bad as people thought," said Staios, who played in the first three games of Smyth's tour. "More than anything, I think it takes more time to get the word out than Ryan had. I can't believe people would protest against the players when the cause is for charity."

Likewise, Staios doesn't see the positive response in his hometown as a political statement. Some fans are coming for the spectacle of an outdoor game. Others to see Gordie Howe drop the ceremonial first puck.

"As far as the relationship between fans and players, I hope fans know we're not exactly as we've been portrayed," he said. "It's been ugly at times.

"This is something I hope fans appreciate, but that's not why we wanted to do this. We want this to be a positive experience and keep this as far away from any other issues as possible."


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