ANN ARBOR, MI – A hockey puck is a fickle little disc.
It bounces here and there arbitrarily, rolling when it should be flat and sliding off a stick at an inopportune time. Players learn to control it, staring down at their blade on the puck until eventually that ability becomes instinctual, so they can look up and make plays and be confident that evil little circle won’t be slipping away.
But the Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings couldn’t trust those instincts on the frozen rink of The Big House on Wednesday, with wind and snow whipping through the 2014 NHL Winter Classic.
Not even the man considered the best stickhandler in the world.
“I talked to Pavel [Datsyuk] about seven minutes into the game,” said Red Wings coach Mike Babcock, “and I said to him, ‘What do you think?’ And he said, ‘Well, we're being too careful with the puck. But he said, ‘We gotta be [careful] because you're scared to turn it over. There's so much snow.’”
The Leafs won the game, 3-2 in a shootout. The Wings possessed the puck for the majority of the game, peppering Jonathan Bernier with 43 shots. But they were ugly chances, rather than the usual flourish for which the Red Wings’ offense is known.
“The conditions made it so some of the skill in the game was eliminated, but I thought the players competed hard,” said Babcock.
Skill was replaced by caution for the Wings and the Leafs.
“The snow put a little wrinkle in things. But it added to the whole experience,” said Leafs forward Jay McClement. “Tough to make plays. After the ice was cleaned, you saw plays behind made for a few minutes. It was tough to get your head up.”
In fact, with so many heads down, McClement was surprised there weren’t any catastrophic hits in the game.
“Every time you looked down, the puck seemed to stay where it was, you have to keep it on your stick and not push it ahead of yourself,” he said. “I’m surprised there weren’t bigger hits out there.”
There weren’t big hits, just like there weren’t many offensive highlights. But the game was back and forth and entertaining, which is a tribute to the ice crew that kept the surface as snow-free as possible.
“They did an extraordinary job,” said NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. “You could tell as the logo started getting more covered when we needed to shovel. It actually looked like synchronized swimming, so to speak."