There has been lots of talk about how outdoor hockey games are losing it’s flavor, with so many of them being played. Well, I hope that they watched the Winter Classic this year.
The game started on New Year’s Day, with a Guinness-certified record crowd of 105,941 Red Wings and Maple Leafs fans filing into Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, MI. The stadium looked gorgeous from aerial views, with one half of the bowl red with some blue scattered around, and the other half blue with some red sprinkled here and there. The environment was electric.
The weather was perfect for the occasion as well. The temperature hovered around 13 degrees Fahrenheit (-10.5 Celsius), wind chill at around 0 degrees, and snow falling throughout the afternoon. For a game that was to bring back memories of pond hockey, the weather certainly played it’s part.
The first period of play showed us the kind of play we did expect, sloppy. The puck was getting slowed down by the snow that accumulated on the ice, and it was tough to get some offensive flow to the game.
But starting late in that first period and into the second, the teams finally settled in and started acclimating to the conditions. The Red Wings were first to seem to figure things out, but the Leafs were right behind them.
Then the goal scoring started. Just as the game wasn’t as fluid as normal, the goals were just the same. Detroit’s Henrik Zetterberg threw a centering pass to teammate Daniel Alfredsson, who saw the puck deflect off his skate and in. Toronto responded with James van Riemsdyk slapping a rebound out of mid-air past Jimmy Howard.
Tyler Bozak scored to give Toronto the lead with a high deflection in the third, and with goalie Jonathan Bernier playing superbly, it seemed like they would be able to hang on.
Until Detroit’s Jonathan Abdelkader deflected a pass from Brendan Smith into the net behind Bernier to tie the game up.
The game was chippy and sloppy, ending in a shootout, when Tyler Bozak fired a stick-side shot past Howard to win it for the Leafs, 3-2. Most of the offense came on broken plays and messy bounces. Many of the good chances weren’t scored because of the rough conditions.
But that was the beauty of the game. Old-time pond-hockey shimmy-games that the Winter Classic tries to emulate every year is exactly that, with rough ice surfaces being exposed to the elements, at the mercy of mother nature. The fans were loud and passionate, reacting to every play as loud as a crowd of 105,000 can be. Heck, Jonathan Bernier was wearing a tuque over his goalie mask the whole game.
The players simply loved the game, and it showed in one of the greatest hockey traditions of all time, the hand-shake line.
The hand-shake line is normally reserved for the conclusion of playoff series, where both teams congratulate each other on a well fought series, in a showing of mutual respect for the game, and each other. The Red Wings and Maple Leafs met at center ice to line up and shake hands, one player with each member of the other team, and show sportsmanship in exchanging “good game” to one another, before going to their respective sides of the ice to salute the fans who braved the cold to show support.
Sure, there are 5 other outdoor games to be played, and I would be one of the first to tell you it won’t be nearly as good as today’s event. Heck, I’d also be willing to say that they are just money-making ventures, despite my favorite team finally getting a chance to play outdoors (the Devils at Yankee Stadium on January 26th). I also hope in the future that they rid the NHL of the Stadium Series, and keep it to just the Winter Classic and maybe the Heritage Classic (maybe play them both on New Year’s, make it really cool). But each game will bring it’s own unique experience to the game. People will still show up, and still watch it on TV if they can’t make it to the game. Festivities will still be celebrated, and players will still re-live childhoods past on the frozen ponds they grew up on.
But today’s Winter Classic was exactly as it’s title said. A true Winter Classic.