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2014 Winter Classic: NHL media game offers heart-pounding glimpse of life on the big ice

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — All that mattered was the puck. There I was on the ice at Michigan Stadium, playing in a media game (the Writer Classic?), and suddenly I didn’t feel the cold, didn’t notice the snowflakes, didn’t stare at the 100,000 seat cushions blanketing the Big House in red and blue.

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Yahoo NHL writer Nick Cotsonika (L) hits the ice for the NHL media game at Michigan Stadium.

It wasn’t surreal anymore. It was real.

Jennifer Moad, a senior manager of communications at the NHL, had the puck in the left-wing corner. She played at Harvard from 2002-06. She’s good. I was skating into the slot all alone. I never played at a high level. I’m a 37-year-old winger who wishes he had the body of Dustin Byfuglien.

Moad made a beautiful pass – flat, right on my tape. It was like a sports movie. Time slowed, and at my pace, that means it slooooowed. The camera went from a wide shot to a tight focus. At first, all I wanted was to have fun, avoid embarrassment and share this experience with my dear readers. Well, now I wanted to score, damn it, and this was my chance – a chance of a lifetime.

In a split-second, I took the pass, peeked ahead and fired …

* * * * *

Writers are supposed to be objective and not make themselves the story. Usually, that’s no problem. I have covered many big events, and though I enjoy my job and feel fortunate to do it, I don’t root for anyone and don’t get overly excited for anything anymore.

But I’m breaking the rules now, because this Winter Classic presents a problem for me. I can’t be objective. I can’t leave myself out of it. And frankly, I am as excited for this as I have been for any sporting event in a long time.

Full disclosure: I grew up in the Detroit area. The first time I went to a hockey game, the Toronto Maple Leafs visited the Detroit Red Wings, and I was hooked, begging my parents for a pair of skates and a chance to play. I played shinny on a pond and practiced with my team on an outdoor rink at times. I followed the Wings, and I watched the Leafs, too, because we could get “Hockey Night in Canada” on Channel 9 from Windsor, Ontario.

I went to the University of Michigan. I covered hockey and football for The Michigan Daily, the school newspaper. I joined the Detroit Free Press after college, and my first job was covering Michigan football. My second was covering the Red Wings. (Michigan football coach Lloyd Carr’s reaction when I left for the Wings beat: “You got demoted?”) I still live in Ann Arbor, five miles from the Big House, and have U-M football season tickets. I work for Yahoo Sports, reporting to bosses in Toronto.

Michigan State held the first outdoor hockey game of this kind in 2001, the “Cold War” against Michigan. It drew 74,544 to Spartan Stadium, then a world record for hockey attendance. My wife got to go. I didn’t because I was on the road – and I was not happy. I remember opening the Vancouver Province on a plane and seeing a photo of the scene splashed across two tabloid pages thousands of miles from home.

Like any obnoxious, arrogant Michigan alum, I thought if MSU could do it, U-M could do it bigger and better. The Big House would be perfect! It’s relatively compact for such a massive stadium – all benches, one bowl with no upper deck, little sideline space – so the sightlines would be good and the world record would be shattered! Say what you want about outdoor hockey games, but they’re fun, and sports are supposed to be fun. Why not think outside the box – or the arena, rather? Why not dream big?

Then the NHL staged the Heritage Classic in Edmonton in 2003. Then the NHL started the Winter Classic in Buffalo in 2008. Then Michigan hosted Michigan State in the “Big Chill at the Big House” in 2010 and shattered the world record indeed, originally announcing a crowd of 113,411, officially drawing 104,173. Then the NHL scheduled the Winter Classic for Michigan Stadium – Leafs at Wings, New Year’s Day, 2013.

And then came the lockout and a one-year delay.

So this is personal for me, all my worlds colliding in one place on one day, and it has been a long time coming. All the better. My wife and I have two sons now, and they’re just getting into hockey. We have bought four tickets. No way I am sitting in the press box.

* * * * *

I would love to tell you I scored. I would love to tell you I snapped that puck top-shelf as the snowflakes fell gently, that my sports-movie moment had a Disney ending.

But I didn’t, and it didn’t. My eyes saw the goalie and my hands shot the puck right into his midsection, and that was just the beginning. I went down to block a shot and missed. I got the puck deep in the defensive zone, panicked, fired it across the ice and committed a brutal turnover. I backchecked hard late in the game and went straight to the bench, gasping. As much as I wanted to stay out there forever, my shifts got suspiciously shorter and shorter. No legs. No lungs.

Thank goodness the NHL didn’t let players interview the writers and file stories about the media game. All the guys I have criticized would have loved it. You couldn’t measure my performance with advanced stats like Corsi and Fenwick, unless maybe you invented one called Slapstick.

But it was awesome, every bit as awesome as I imagined, and I won’t remember how I played, just that I was lucky enough to play. You take a few laps, and you soak in the scene. From the ice, the stands soar, for sure, but they almost seem to descend to the top of the boards, like in an arena. From that vantage point, you don’t see the space on the sidelines. You feel the air, and on Monday, it was classic winter weather – cold, overcast, with a few light flurries. You notice the ice isn’t hard or brittle, but just right. Your blades cut right into it. Dan Craig and his crew do a great job.

Then the puck drops.

When you hop over the boards, it’s real, a hockey game. You focus on the action. If you’re me, you’re trying to keep up; if you’re Henrik Zetterberg or Dion Phaneuf, you’re trying to win. When you come back to the bench, it’s surreal again. You sit and stare, looking around, looking up. By the end your heart is pounding and your legs are heavy and you’re sweating. The only thing cold is the beer in your hand. That, dear readers, is what it’s like.

Just wait until Wednesday, when there are NHL players on the ice at Michigan Stadium, when there are fans on those 100,000 seat cushions, when there is crowd noise and show business. I’ll be honest: I can’t wait.

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