Ann Arbor — For Heather Hicks and her family, there could only be one perfect Christmas present: Tickets to today’s Winter Classic outdoor showdown between the Detroit Red Wings and the Toronto Maple Leafs in Ann Arbor.
“We’ve cheered for Toronto since our kids were little,” said the Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. Native. “We’ve come to lots of games and we couldn’t miss out on this opportunity.”
The roar of the crowd at Michigan Stadium was deafening at times as up to 105,000 fired-up hockey fans cheered for two Original Six rivals in what organizers hope will be the largest outdoor hockey game in history.
For many, it was a chance to celebrate the sport and spend time with loved ones.
Todd Francis of Toledo attended the game with family members who came in from Dallas and Rochester, N.Y. His favorite team, the Buffalo Sabres, weren’t playing, but that didn’t dampen his excitement.
“We all came together to go to the Winter Classic. This is family,” said Francis. “We’ve been going to games together for 25 years and we’ve been planning this for two years.”
As an Ohio State fan — he even wore a Buckeye hat — Francis said it felt a little strange to be in Michigan territory.
“This is definitely the one thing that would get me to come to the Big House,” he said.
The Winter Classic was originally planned for New Years Day 2013, but a National Hockey League lockout forced it to be delayed a year. Many fans have been waiting since then to attend the game.
Prior to the start of the game, fans shuffled their way around the packed stadium searching for seats. Many stopped to grab a couple of beers, a first for the college football venue, which obtained a special license for the Winter Classic.
All were dressed for below-freezing temperatures and since Michigan Stadium has a no-bag policy, fans had to wear layer upon layer to stay warm. They also had to contend with snowfall during the game.
“I’ve got three pairs of military socks, military long underwear, so I’m OK,” said Dan Williams, a Red Wings fan from Ottawa who attended the game with his friend Shane Pasiechnyk, whom he met in the Canadian Air Force, and their children.
“I used to live in Winnipeg, and when you go to football games it’s minus-35,” he said. “So I know what to wear.”
During the second intermission, Wings fan Aaron Ludwig of Holland was doing jumping jacks to stay warm. He said he would stick it out even though the temperatures were dropping.
“We spent $100 on tickets so we’ll probably stay for the next period,” he said. “It’s a little cold but it’s a good experience.”
A sea of red and blue filled the seats. With an estimated 40,000 Winter Classic tickets having been sold in Ontario, there were plenty of Maple Leafs fans in attendance. As people made their way to their seats, spontaneous chants of “Let’s Go Red Wings!” and “Go Leafs! Go!” broke out between the opposing sides.
Both teams came into the game fairly even, tied for fourth place in the Atlantic Division of the Eastern Conference with 45 points.
But that didn’t deter Jim Celmer of Dearborn from believing in his team.
“It’s cold but that’s OK The cold isn’t bothering me right now because I’m just having so much fun,” said Celmer. “The Wings are going to win. They gotta win.”