January 2, 2014 at 10:49 am

John Niyo

Red Wings, Maple Leafs hit a 'home run for hockey'

Ann Arbor — When the final horn sounded, nothing was settled and no one on the ice was ready to go home. So they played some more, just like they used to do when they were kids.

And even when it was finally time to come in out of the cold, after the Toronto Maple Leafs had defeated the Detroit Red Wings in a shootout, 3-2, to cap a memorable Winter Classic before a potentially record-setting crowd at Michigan Stadium, the players lingered just a bit longer.

The snow was still falling, the wind-chill had dipped below zero, and yet there they were, forming a handshake line — something you’d see after a playoff series, not a midweek regular-season game — and turning to salute the crowd with sticks raised.

“I wanted to stay out there,” Red Wings defenseman Brendan Smith said. “I was hoping there was more skating around. I was just trying to take it in. It was amazing.”

It was, without a doubt. And as his coach, Mike Babcock, gushed later, mixing his metaphors after hockey stole some of the national spotlight on a day usually reserved for football, “To me, it was a home run for hockey.”

Home run, touchdown. Whatever you want to call it, this was a day few who were a part of it will forget, from the players on the ice to the snow-covered, rosy-cheeked, foot-stomping announced crowd of 100,000-plus in the stands.

Gary Bettman, the NHL’s commissioner, called it “the biggest and best New Year’s Day party in our history,” thanking the Ilitch family, among others for “turning this magical idea into a record-setting reality.”

Unusual icing

This was the sixth Winter Classic the league has produced, and it’s one of six outdoor games the NHL will hold this season. But while the weather might’ve matched the inaugural classic in Buffalo in 2008, the sheer scope of Wednesday’s scene was what made it historic.

The snow that started falling early in the morning snarled traffic and kept some fans from arriving before the opening faceoff. Even the two teams were forced to crawl their way from Detroit to Ann Arbor with two-hour bus rides.

But it only added to the festive atmosphere, as impromptu games of shinny broke out in the parking lots across the street at Ann Arbor Pioneer. Some fans brought their own sticks and nets, others made do with less, with overturned garbage cans becoming goals and smashed beer cans serving as pucks.

Inside the stadium, the snow squalls provided the perfect accent to a sea of red and blue in the stands. (By the way, can we just get these teams to both wear their home jerseys whenever they meet?) And with perhaps 50,000 Toronto fans filling the stands — the U.S.-Canada border crossing resembled the door on a hockey bench this week — the debate was spirited long before the players from both teams marched out of the tunnel before the game.

“Whether it was ‘Go, Leafs go!’ or ‘Let’s go, Red Wings!’ it was a lot of fun,” said Justin Abdelkader, who scored the tying goal with 5:32 left in the third period. “It was better than I ever thought. The elements, the snow coming down the whole game, it was awesome. I couldn’t think of a way the experience could’ve been better, besides winning the game. It was really cool.”

Really cold, too. The crowd roared when the scoreboard flashed the game-time temperature of 13 degrees. And when linesman Scott Driscoll went to blow his whistle early in the game, he discovered it was too cold to make any noise and had to go retrieve a warmer spare.

Likewise, when Abdelkader headed to the box with the game’s first penalty about 6˝ minutes in, he discovered the water bottle there was frozen, too.

“Nothing came out,” he laughed. “Had to unscrew the top to try to get a drink.”

Cherish the moment

It took 20,000 gallons of water to build a 2-inch thick rink in the center of this iconic college football shrine. And it took a dozen rink workers on skates a few hundred passes with shovels to clear the ice surface throughout the afternoon. Even with repeated snow-removal stoppages there were piles of snow everywhere, and Tomas Tatar’s miserably-decisive shootout miss was just one example of the havoc it wreaked.

But the ice underneath was hard — “Better than a lot of the arenas we play in normally,” Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg noted — the benches were heated and the delays actually served a dual purpose. It gave the players time to survey the scene, Zetterberg said, adding, “I think everyone just looked around and tried to take in as much as possible.”

Besides, everyone — save for those shirtless Leafs fans who’d obviously spent too much time tailgating — seemed to be dressed for the weather. The fans came bundled in hats and scarves and jerseys over layers of coats and sweaters, the players with their ski masks and pregame stocking caps. (Leafs goalie Jonathan Bernier, who was the game’s first star stopping 41 of 43 shots, actually wore his toque over his mask the entire game.)

“It wasn’t easy,” Abdelkader said. “But if you talk to any of the guys, I don’t think they would’ve had it any other way. That’s what made it so special.”

Just how special? Well, the announced crowd figure of 105,491 was actually the number of tickets sold. And it’ll be up to the Guinness World Records officials to verify the final number that passed through the turnstiles. The stated goal was to break the hockey attendance record of 104,173 set here at the Michigan-Michigan State game in December 2010.

But the real goal was actually much bigger than that, staging a hockey game in a football stadium and trying to make it look — and feel — like something more than a novelty act.

And though it’s a shame it had to end in a shootout, and for the Red Wings in a losing effort, I can’t imagine anybody left feeling unfulfilled.

“I never talk to my team after we lose — ever,” Babcock said. “But I did today. I just said, ‘You should be proud. … Be thankful for the experience. Remember the experience.’

“I think it’s so important. I said it yesterday. Life’s about moments. You only remember moments. You don’t remember everything.”

But this?

“This,” he said, “is one of those things.”


The Red Wings celebrate a goal by Justin Abdelkader late in the third period Wednesday. / David Guralnick / Detroit News
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