January 2, 2014 at 1:00 am

Gregg Krupa

On great day for NHL, Michigan Stadium is No. 1 star

The scene at the Winter Classic
The scene at the Winter Classic: Gregg Krupa of The Detroit News talks about the scene at the NHL Winter Classic game between the Red Wings and the Maple Leafs

Ann Arbor— We gathered here, the 100,000-and-some of us, not because of the NHL, not because of the Red Wings, and not because of the Maple Leafs.

In fact, it was not really because of the hockey.

We came because of Michigan Stadium.

Intent on setting the record for attendance at a hockey game, those in control of things in the NHL put the game in this vast bowl, now commonly known across the country, if not around the world, as the Big House.

Someone from the Guinness Book of World Records attended, to document the effort.

Whether the record is officially set became a bit of a cliffhanger. With 105,491 tickets sold, the previous attendance record of 104,173 might be safe on a severe winter day.

We came to see the hockey and two ancient rivals, certainly. But we watched them here because of the stadium.

Not often is a venue a sports star. Make no mistake, Michigan Stadium is.

Diehard fans are intent on visiting places such as Wrigley Field and Madison Square Garden to cross them off their bucket lists. The Astrodome in Houston once was declared as the “Eighth Wonder of the World.” But the old gridiron on the campus of the University of Michigan, surrounded by the immense, renovated bowl, seems singular in its attractiveness as a venue.

They come here to play because of Michigan Stadium.

First impressions

“There’s going to be more people here than I might see the rest of the year,” said Bobby Leland, of Echo Bay, Ontario, along the Trans-Canadian Highway, southeast of Sault Ste. Marie.

“I’m all excited. When I watch college football, I’m definitely a Michigan fan. So, I have seen it on TV.”

But just after he cleared an entrance in the north end zone and, for the first time, experienced the floor drop from under him as the bowl descends seemingly ever-downward to the snow-covered field, with a regulation giant rink plotted smack-dab in the middle of it, Leland grabbed his breath.

“Oh, wow. Holy cow. This is unreal,” said Leland, who drove 500 miles with his family, beginning Sunday night. “I never, ever thought it was this big.

“What an amazing place! Can you imagine all of the stuff that’s gone on, here?”

From the time LaVerne “Kip” Taylor hauled down a pass in the end zone and scored the first touchdown, through the coaching tenures of Fritz Crisler, Bennie Oosterbaan and Bo Schembechler, the memories have danced and thrilled.

My first time, I had a similar reaction to Leland’s, when, in 1967 my brother, then a freshman, walked me from West Quad through the unlocked gates outside the south end zone, and into the big bowl.

They let folks do that, back in those days. One could walk right down on to the field.

My second time was a game against Vanderbilt in 1969. I was there with perhaps 30,000 other people. The attendance was announced as 40,000-some, but none of us believed it.

The place clearly was at least two-thirds empty.

Later that season, I saw Schembechler face Woody Hayes for the first time and when those Wolverines left that tunnel they seemed not to touch the gridiron with their feet for the rest of the afternoon. They played as though possessed by their rookie coach, and authored what still is one of the greatest upsets in the history of college football.

There have been few Wolverines games in Michigan Stadium with fewer than 100,000, ever since.

And it made a prophet of Fielding H. Yost.

In the 1920s, Yost, the immortal coach, looked around him and saw Illinois, Minnesota, Northwestern and Ohio State building stadiums with capacities in excess of 50,000, huge for the time. When studies urged a stadium of about 70,000, Yost argued the day would come when 120,000 to 150,000 would want to watch the Wolvernines.

As he often did, on and off the field in Ann Arbor, Yost won.

Unforgettable day

A bit indirectly, of course, it is why we all showed up on New Year’s Day.

And even those who have been around sport for a long time were impressed upon entering Michigan Stadium for the first time.

“All kiddings aside, this an amazing stadium,” wrote Damien Cox, of the Toronto Star. “Feels like a Roman coliseum, without the lions and such.

“Hard to describe, but the roar in this stadium, loud and extended, was quite spectacular when James van Riemsdyk put that puck in, 1-1.”

Barry Melrose, the hockey analyst for ESPN, former coach and player, also was in Michigan Stadium for the first time.

“The first thing that grabbed my attention is everyone’s been telling me how big it is and, when you got there, and it doesn’t look that big because most of it is underground,” Melrose said. “You know, I thought the guys were kidding me. And then you walk in and the vision hits you. Pretty impressive. It’s obviously the biggest building I’ve ever been in. I’ve been to the Rose Bowl. It appears to me much bigger than the Rose Bowl.

“You can see that when it’s full of people like today, it’s pretty awesome.”

And, when I close my eyes, I still can see the young Schembechler leading the Wolverines out, for his first time, against Ohio State.

gkrupa@detroitnews.com
twitter.com/greggkrupa

Not often is a venue a sports star. Make no mistake, Michigan Stadium is. / Daniel Mears / Detroit News