They arrived in waddling droves, bundled in their winter warmest so that they all looked twice their size. They hopped off yellow school buses and emerged from SUVs dusty with salt and snow and trudged toward a college football stadium, in the heart of bowl season, for a professional hockey game.
These hundred thousand hockey fans had waited almost two full years to make this walk. The NHL first announced in February 2012 that the next Winter Classic would feature the Detroit Red Wings and the Toronto Maple Leafs at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor. In November of that same year — thanks to the lockout — the league’s much-trumpeted event was officially postponed.
But that all seemed like a distant memory on a cold and snowy New Year’s Day that Detroit coach Mike Babcock, even in defeat, would later call “a home run for hockey.” Before a reported 105,491 in attendance1 and beneath photogenically inclement conditions, the Maple Leafs edged the Red Wings in a shootout, 3-2.
“It was just an experience I’ll never forget, and one that I’m really glad I had an opportunity to be a part of,” said Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf, who on Tuesday signed a seven-year, $49 million contract extension with Toronto and on Wednesday picked up two assists. “And it couldn’t have turned out any better — to win it in a shootout, the snow’s comin’ down.”
The Winter Classic has quickly become one of the NHL’s flagship events, on par with the All-Star Game or the draft. But while those mostly cater to existing hockey fans, the Winter Classic has from the start been designed to snag the attention of the more casual viewer, specifically the kind who’s flipping channels on New Year’s Day. It’s a great TV spectacle, with its sweeping shots of iconic arenas converted temporarily to outdoor rinks and its potential to become a live human snow globe. And it’s a way for the league and its broadcast partners to reframe NHL hockey from a speedy and at times violent game to something simpler and more nostalgic: Squint, and it’s just a bunch of guys playing some outdoor shinny at the local pond.
“It brought back a lot of memories from a childhood of playing outside,” said Toronto coach Randy Carlyle. “Growing up in northern Ontario, we played a lot of outdoor hockey and never really played indoor hockey until I was 14 years old.”
Of course, the same things that make the whole thing great — the unpredictability of the weather, the unfamiliarity of the location — tend not to make for lovely hockey. With the uncovered rink accumulating puck-slowing snow on Wednesday and the two teams caught in swirling winds, the game was mostly ugly. But the Winter Classic has always been more than just a game, and the whole event was — as hockey players love to say — a beauty.
The smart ones got there early; it had been snowing for hours and would continue to for hours more. The day’s high was less than 15 degrees; its low was in negative temperatures. On the media shuttle to the stadium, we passed by fender benders and the telltale tire tracks of skidding cars. (One Red Wings writer was among those who got into a minor accident and missed the game.) As traffic worsened later in the morning,2 the 40-minute drive from Detroit to Ann Arbor ballooned into three-plus-hour expeditions for some poor souls.
When I arrived just after 10 a.m., there were already thousands of tailgaters, some huddling around their own cars but most inside the Fan Zone set up by the NHL. (A tent sponsored by Advil that dispensed free over-the-counter pain relievers was particularly popular with revelers groggy from the night before.) Some wore head-to-toe Carhartt or camo, others opted to go the wacky pajama bottoms or Zubaz route, lots were in snow pants, and just about everyone had squeezed into their favorite Leafs or Wings jerseys. (This guy was a notable exception.) They looked like giant children in their bulky layers, and you half-expected to hear a grown man whining, “Mom, I can’t put my arms down!”
They downed beers and hopped from foot to foot and milled in lines: lines to try their hand at taking slap shots; lines for barbecue sandwiches and, later, the bathroom; lines to view various hockey trophies; and the longest line of all, the one leading into the official merchandise tent. I eavesdropped on snippets of in-queue conversations.
“… I bet if Nick Lidstrom unretired today he’d be, like, their second-best defenseman,” one tall guy in a Detroit jersey told another.
“Where did you get that lanyard?” a woman waiting for a $10 Kahlua-spiked coffee asked her friend, eyeing a Winter Classic loop around her neck. “I must have missed where they were giving them away.” The other lady chuckled. “No,” she said, “they’re selling them.”
During a Maple Leafs practice Tuesday, Carlyle said he had visited a Detroit café that was serving a “10-to-1” ratio of Leafs-to-Wings fans. “I’m willing to bet tomorrow, you’re going to see a lot more blue and white in the stands than you see red and white in this market,” he said, “because the Toronto hockey base has been moving to Michigan for tomorrow. Anybody that drove here that came along the 401 and stopped at an on-route saw the passion and commitment that this fan base brings with it.”
I thought it was a problematic extrapolation — there were probably fewer Wings fans in that café because they could, y’know, eat lunch inside their offices or homes — but he actually wasn’t too far off. At puck drop the stands were evenly divided, as if the red and blue split between the players’ benches had extended skyward in perpetuity.3 It was like watching Congress during a State of the Union address: one side erupting intermittently in applause while the other stayed stonily put, and vice versa. The effect was both endearing and visually stunning — the Winter Classic’s Platonic ideal.
I got a little nervous, I’ll admit, during the second period. Neither team had a goal by the halfway point of the game, as players tried to adjust to the wind in their faces and the buildup of snow on the ice. Stretch passes were generally out of the question, as were most attempts at fancy stickhandling.
“Sometimes you were skating with the puck, and then the puck was behind you because it hit a pile of snow,” said Red Wings defenseman Brendan Smith. “You get to really see how good Pavel Datsyuk is, because it almost didn’t affect him.” But even Datsyuk had his issues, telling Babcock in the first period that he and his teammates were being “too careful with the puck” because they were so worried they’d turn it over.
With both teams slumping of late, I feared a scoreless game and restless fans, and I worried that in the absence of any other stories, Joffrey Lupul’s suspension-worthy first-period crosscheck of Patrick Eaves would become the biggest takeaway from an otherwise excellent day.
With about seven minutes to play in the second, though, the Wings’ Henrik Zetterberg made a pass across the slot to Daniel Alfredsson that caromed off his skate and into the net.4 (It wasn’t a deliberate kick, so the goal stood.) Three minutes later, James van Riemsdyk batted the puck out of midair and past Jimmy Howard to tie the game. I exhaled.
Tyler Bozak, who had played only six games over the last two months because of injury, put the Leafs ahead 2-1 early in the third when he deflected a shot from the point by Phaneuf. They were lucky to have the lead: The Red Wings outshot Toronto 43-26, but Leafs goalie Jonathan Bernier (making his fourth consecutive start for the first time as a had-to-be-disgruntled James Reimer watched from the bench in a furry hat) was the best player on the ice.
Wearing a pompommed toque over his goalie mask, Bernier made several big saves in the first, stopping Daniel Cleary and later denying Datsyuk and Zetterberg. And he became an object of fascination when NBC cameras caught him putting his hands down the back of his pants to stay warm.
“My blockers really had trouble keeping warm,” he later admitted with a smile. “My trainer was giving me hot packs, and I put it in my pants as well to try and keep it warm.”
But he couldn’t stop the Wings’ Justin Abdelkader, whose backhanded one-timer with just more than five minutes to play tied things up once again. (For the former Michigan State Spartan, it was a nice little touch to get such a big goal inside enemy territory.) Even from inside the hermetically sealed press box, we could hear the roar of (half of) the crowd.
After the game, Abdelkader was asked if he had any time to pause and take it all in.
“You had to,” he said. “It’s a game and you’re playing hard, but you have to — because it’s a once-in-a-lifetime deal.”
This was a fitting place to stage the largest outdoor hockey extravaganza yet. In 2001, Michigan State had the wacky idea to invite rival Michigan to play a hockey game in Spartan Stadium, an October contest called The Cold War that drew nearly 75,000 fans.5 (Several future NHLers played in the game; Mike Cammalleri scored twice on Ryan Miller, for example.) For years, there was a desire for a rematch hosted in Ann Arbor, but it wasn’t until the Wolverines transitioned from grass to turf that the idea became a reality. In December 2010, the event — known as The Big Chill at The Big House — drew 104,173, a new Guinness record.
In the years between (and since) the two NCAA showcase events, outdoor hockey has experienced, well, hockey-stick growth. Inspired by the Cold War game, the NHL held an outdoor event called the Heritage Classic in Edmonton in 2003. Temperatures were so cold that the ice turned brittle and cracked, but the novelty was infectious. The spectacle piqued the interest of an NBC exec, who went to the league with the idea of holding a similar annual event, but it wasn’t until marketing wizard John Collins was hired away from the NFL that the league really saw the (natural) light.
The first Winter Classic, a matchup that pitted the Sabres against the Penguins, was held in Buffalo in 2008 — it was a doozy, with Sidney Crosby winning the game in a snowflake-framed shootout — and the event has only grown in scope each year. My first Winter Classic was in 2011, when the Penguins met the Capitals in a contest now famous for being the first (and best) to be featured on HBO — and infamous for being the game in which Crosby suffered his concussion. It was preceded by a “Legends Game” that featured some of the greatest old-timers and alumni from the two teams, but that contest was thoroughly mismanaged: Tickets were sold for only a tiny portion of Heinz Field, communication was unclear, and when regulation play ended with a 5-5 tie, that was all she wrote. The next season, the league caught on to the potential, and the alumni game between the Flyers and the Rangers filled Citizens Bank Park and included pyrotechnic-enhanced player introductions.
This time around, there were not one but two alumni games, held back-to-back Tuesday at a different outdoor rink in Detroit’s downtown Comerica Park.6 It was definitely a bit of overkill — particularly since the games were transparently split into A and B squads — but it also led to some outstanding moments.
In the first game (the JV one), legendary Michigan hockey coach Red Berenson not only suited up at age 74, he kind of put everyone to shame. It was like watching Jack Palance do one-armed push-ups at the Oscars. Before one crucial faceoff, he even began directing his teammates as if they were his Wolverines. After the game, more than one aging player declared him an idol. “I think I’m lucky,” said Berenson, who has been behind the bench at Michigan for 30 years. “I’ve been able to stay in the game and stay around young kids playing college hockey.”
And there was also Jiri Fischer, who at 33 was decades younger than some of his teammates. The former first-round pick was forced to retire at 25 after collapsing from cardiac arrest on the bench in 2005; on Tuesday, he scored the game’s first goal, calling it “a little fairy tale.”
Lidstrom and Chris Chelios and Lanny McDonald and Al Iafrate and so, so many others were all on the ice for the second contest. (When this game also ended at 5-5 in regulation, the organizers didn’t make the same mistake again, and instead treated fans to a shootout.) Most notably, all of the Red Wings’ fabled Russian Five were in attendance: Four of them suited up to play, while the fifth — Vladimir Konstantinov, who was nearly killed in a limo crash in 1997 following the Wings’ Stanley Cup win — made an emotional appearance as the crowd chanted “Vladi! Vladi!”
“He was so happy and excited,” Sergei Fedorov, who flew over from Russia for the game,7 told the Detroit News. “I haven’t seen him that happy in a while. So I was proud of that moment.”
On Wednesday, the Winter Classic was also decided by a shootout — basically, Gary Bettman’s wildest dream. Shootouts are unpopular with many hockey fans, who believe a team game shouldn’t be decided by a skills competition,8 but in this case, it actually felt kind of right. A few people had trickled out of the Big House, hoping to beat the epic traffic and finally escape the cold, but for the most part, Michigan Stadium remained vibrant and full. With each player’s attempt, the corresponding fan base rose or fell. It was much better than the wave that someone had tried to start midgame.
The red half of the stadium lit up en masse when Datsyuk somehow managed to execute a perfect top-shelf maneuver despite the sticky, slow conditions. The fans in blue cheered goals by Lupul and Tyler Bozak, who had netted the Leafs’ second goal in regulation. It was Bozak who ultimately won the game for Toronto when he beat Howard one-on-one.
Afterward, USA Hockey used the grand stage to announce its men’s Olympic team. Local youth hockey players skated out wearing the jerseys of those selected, and then Kessel, van Riemsdyk, and Howard all reemerged onto the ice in Team USA sweaters.9 It was just one more small touch that made the whole day feel even bigger.
Of course, there were problems: drunk and/or hypothermic fans being carted out on stretchers, the traffic nightmares, the awkwardness of a horn stopping play halfway through overtime (so the teams could switch sides) right as Zetterberg was skating in with the puck. Clearing the snow off the ice was like painting the Golden Gate Bridge — the second the crews finished up, they had to start over again.
But nothing could quite overcome the familial spirit that pervaded the last few days.10 For a stadium divided, there was a real feeling of unity: Everyone was really cold, everyone was a giant hockey fan, and they were all in it together. The Red Wings are known to be an organization that operates like a family, and so it was fitting to have the Big House open to so much company for the holiday — the burden of hosting outweighed by the blessing of being surrounded by so much love.