The Red Wings face the Maple Leafs at Michigan Stadium on New Year's Day. (Illustration by Jamie Hollar / Detroit News)
Detroit — Pavel Datsyuk played his share of outdoor hockey growing up in Russia. And for any of his teammates who might’ve forgotten what it feels like, he shares this sage advice.
“Move fast,” he said, laughing, “or you’ll be frozen.”
Truth is, though, the Red Wings — and their fans — would be wise to slow down and savor this spectacle, as they host the Maple Leafs in the Winter Classic at Michigan Stadium on New Year’s Day.
Throw on some long johns, grab your tuque — as our Canadian friends like to call ’em — and settle in for hockey’s made-for-TV Super Bowl. At least that’s what Don Renzulli, vice president of events for the NHL, calls this massive undertaking, transforming Michigan Stadium into a winter wonderland that’ll host what is expected to be the largest crowd to watch a pro hockey game.
It’s a temporary rink, but if previous Winter Classic shows are any indication, the memories will be long-lasting.
And that, of course, is a big part of the allure, as the NHL taps the game’s roots to create a little midseason magic and a major marketing opportunity.
“Anytime you get to play outdoors,” said Red Wings forward Daniel Cleary, “it brings back a lot of memories.”
Memories of pond hockey, throwing sticks to pick teams for games of shinny. Afternoon games that lasted well past dark, and anxious nights waiting for the backyard rink to properly freeze.
“It’s always fun to be outside,” said Red Wings coach Mike Babcock, recalling his childhood memories of that big sledding hill behind Wapoos Bay in Leaf Rapids, Manitoba. “We had a great little rink back there that was fantastic.
“Obviously this isn’t that, but it’s pretty special.”
It is, which is why the NHL has to be careful about overdoing it.
“If this was all we did,” said John Collins, chief operating officer for the NHL, “this would be the biggest thing we’ve ever done.”
But it’s not all they’re doing — not even close. Buoyed by a fresh sheet of clean ice — last winter’s collective bargaining agreement ensuring several years of labor peace — the league is playing a half-dozen outdoor games this season.
There’s the Winter Classic, hosted by the Red Wings and surrounded by the two-week Hockeytown Winter Festival in downtown Detroit, where the Maple Leafs-Red Wings alumni game was such a draw they had to make it a doubleheader.
Then there’s the “Stadium Series” that begins Jan. 25 at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, of all places. Next comes a pair of games at Yankee Stadium the week before the Super Bowl in New York. (Excuse me, New Jersey.) Then in early March the Heritage Classic in Vancouver — Canada’s version of the Winter Classic – and another game at Wrigley Field as the league trumpets its return from the Olympic break.
“Every club, every market, every football stadium, every baseball stadium has called to say, ‘We’d love to host one of these things,’ ” Collins said. “So I know that the interest is there.”
But he adds “this year was a very special, unique year,” and the league hasn’t yet committed to anything beyond a Winter Classic hosted by the Capitals next season.
“They’re profitable,” Collins said. “But the real reason to do it is because you’re elevating the game, creating some of that national interest in a game. It’s the spectacle.”
Dream come true
And this week that’s probably all that matters in Detroit, and Ann Arbor, where fantasy becomes reality, where a run-of-the-mill regular-season game becomes something memorable and professional hockey players become kids again.
“I've always wanted to play in one,'' said Todd Bertuzzi, who at 38 was worried he might not get the chance when the lockout canceled this game a year ago.
For others, the postponement gave them a chance they’d otherwise have missed.
Like Tomas Tatar, a 23-year-old rookie, who happily smeared the eye black on last week as the Red Wings took their practice outdoors last week at Comerica Park, getting accustomed to the elements Tatar says he grew up playing street hockey in his native Slovakia. (“When I got home from school that was the first thing to do,” he said.) And when it was winter, somebody would flood a nearby field and let Mother Nature do the rest, “so we were always skating.”
He has played an outdoor game before, too, prepping for the world championships. But that was just an exhibition game.
“So you can’t really compare, because this is going to be huge,” he said. “Big rivalry, so many fans, everybody’s involved.
“This is going to be a memory in my heart forever.”