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2014 Winter Classic: NHL's biggest and best outdoor game, complete with wind and snow

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo Sports

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — The snow fell and the wind blew and the temperature dipped, and it did not stop. The weather put the winter into this Winter Classic. Still, the fans braved the slick freeways, endured the clogged city streets and shivered in the stands, and the players pushed the puck through the snow and skated against the wind and fought the deep freeze.

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The NHL sold 105,491 tickets to a snowy Winter Classic in pursuit of a world-record crowd. (AP)

The result was not the best hockey game in terms of action: a 3-2 shootout victory for the Toronto Maple Leafs over the Detroit Red Wings on Wednesday, a test of endurance more than a display of talent. But it was the biggest game in NHL history by far in terms of scale, and it was the best game the league has ever staged – indoors or out – in terms of spectacle. It will be hard to match in the future, let alone top.

The NHL did not announce the official attendance, only the number of tickets sold: 105,491. The league won’t know the final count until Guinness World Records tallies every fan who actually attended, plus media members and some league and team officials. But the NHL shattered its previous attendance record of 71,217, set at the first Winter Classic in 2008, and it might end up breaking the world record of 104,173, set at a college game at this same Michigan Stadium in 2010.

At least five sold-out Air Canada Centres or Joe Louis Arenas would be needed to hold the number of people who filled the Big House, and it was about a 50-50 split – the red of Hockeytown dominating the south end of the stadium, the blue of the Centre of the Hockey Universe dominating the north.

Part of the hype for this event is the hypothermia, and these were hockey people – on the bleachers and on the ice. If NFL fans can fill frozen stadiums, if NFL players can battle the elements, if NFL games can be decided by will more than skill and can become memorable because of it, then so can NHL fans and NHL players and NHL games. The weather put the classic into this Winter Classic, too.

“It was not easy,” said the Wings’ Justin Abdelkader, who found a way to score in the third period. “But if you talk to any of the guys in the locker room, they wouldn’t have had it any other way. That’s what made it special.”

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The challenge of holding a Winter Classic at Michigan Stadium was always going to be logistics. When the Wolverines play football, about 20,000 fans walk to the games, and most of the other 80,000 know where they’re going. Cars usually park on the golf course across the street. That was not going to be the case with the Winter Classic, no matter what.

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Fans get into the Winter Classic spirit outside Michigan Stadium. (USA Today)

The weather complicated things Wednesday. It took two hours for some people to get from their hotels in Detroit to Ann Arbor, when it should have taken 45 minutes. Cars and fans were lined up on the streets and sidewalks not long before faceoff, looking for a place to park, trying to get in. The concourse was jammed, and there was grumbling. A sampling: “This is a zoo, right?” “What a cluster(bleep).”

But what a venue, and what a scene. Some fans came early to tailgate. Some played ball hockey, turning over trash cans to use as goals. A group from Milton, Ontario, ran into a group from Stratford, Ontario, in a parking lot on Snyder Avenue, and so there was a guy in a Pavel Datsyuk Winter Classic Wings jersey facing off against a guy in a Nazem Kadri Winter Classic Leafs jersey a block from the Big House three hours before the real faceoff. “They had their sticks, too,” said Dave Jackson, part of the group from Milton. “We said, ‘Let’s play a game.’ ”

On the other side of the stadium, thousands milled around the Spectator Plaza, drinking cold beer and hot chocolate, standing in long lines for merchandise, generating hockey-related revenue. They took shots at targets in interactive booths. They listened to a live band. The singer: “We are available for weddings and enormous hockey games.”

Inside the gates, a couple of fans grabbed some “walking tacos” and ate them sitting smack-dab in the snow. “Now we can people watch, and it’s great,” said Lauren McIntosh, smiling next to Sarah McIntosh, her sister. Lauren went to the University of Michigan, Sarah goes to Miami University in Ohio, and they are from Ann Arbor. Their father, Mike, has had Red Wings season tickets for 26 years and Michigan football season tickets for 10. “This is different – a good different,” Lauren said. “It’s awesome.”

Slowly the old bowl filled. Fans climbed the treacherous stairs – slippery, dangerous even, despite the fact the NHL had salted everything thoroughly ahead of time. They squeezed past each other in the tight rows. They knocked at least three inches of snow off their seats and free Winter Classic seat cushions.

And they cheered and chanted – “Let’s go, Red Wings!” “Go, Leafs, go!” – with the Leafs’ fans a little louder than the Wings’. And the snow kept falling and the wind kept blowing and the temperature kept freezing. And the puck dropped.

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From Row 79 in Section 1 – on the red line, about three quarters up, some of the best seats in the Big House, face value $219 – it was really cool. It was also really cold, and frankly it was hard to watch the first period. The teams kept it simple because of the snow, and the game kept being stopped because of the snow. There was lots of shoveling but no scoring. Twenty minutes took a long time.

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The Maple Leafs downed the Red Wings in an outdoor shootout. (AP)

“I think early on there were a few times where you weren’t sure if you were going to have the puck with you when you skated a few feet,” said Wings forward Daniel Alfredsson, laughing. “But as the game went on, I thought the conditions were really good.”

The snow eased slightly in the second. The play would pick up after each shoveling, then slow again. Alfredsson and the Leafs’ James van Riemsdyk traded goals, and each half of the Big House had the chance to cheer up, if not warm up. The Leafs’ Tyler Bozak scored early in the third. By then, a 6-year-old had an idea: “Daddy, when we get home, can we play hockey – inside?”

Abdelkader tied the game late in the third. Some fans started leaving, but most stayed. They saw Detroit’s Henrik Zetterberg lose a scoring chance when the whistle blew at the 2:30 mark of overtime so the teams could switch ends because of the wind. They saw Detroit’s Pavel Datsyuk make a sick move and Toronto’s Joffrey Lupul take a sharp shot to score in the shootout, despite the cold and snow, and they saw Bozak win it and heard Leafs Nation roar.

“It was an unbelievable experience, one that words can’t describe,” said Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf, sporting fresh stitches on his lower lip. “It was cold, but the fans were still here. The amount of Leaf blue in the building was just …”

Pause.

“Our fans are amazing.”

Wings coach Mike Babcock never talks to his team after a loss, but he made an exception on Wednesday. This was a big game – between two Atlantic Division rivals tied in the standings, between the two wild-card teams in the Eastern Conference. But it was bigger than that – the biggest in NHL history, maybe the biggest in hockey history.

Babcock said Tuesday that you don’t remember everything in life, but you remember moments, and this would be one to remember. He told his players after the game that they should be proud.

“Be thankful for the experience,” he said. “Remember the experience.”

How could anyone forget it?

“We’re going to remember this one,” Bozak said, “forever.”

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