By Ashley Dunkak
ANN ARBOR (CBS DETROIT) – As snow fell steadily and temperatures hovered in the teens with a wind chill around zero, more than 105,000 hockey fans descended on Ann Arbor to watch the Detroit Red Wings take on the Toronto Leafs in the Winter Classic. Wrapped in layers of winter clothing and every snow-proofing accessory imaginable, spectators crowding the Big House comprised the largest crowd ever to watch a hockey game.
The Red Wings lost 3-2 in a shootout to the Maple Leafs, a division rival and fellow Original Six team whom the Red Wings defeated in a shootout just a week and a half earlier, but the New Year’s Day loss did not dim Detroit’s enthusiasm for the Winter Classic as a whole.
“It was fun,” forward Justin Abdelkader said. “I was glad we had heaters on the bench. I felt bad for the fans. They were probably pretty cold all game … Cold, snowy, windy, but I don’t think you could ask for funner, or better, conditions to play in.”
In addition to the dramatic setting, the game had postseason implications for both teams. Each had 45 points entering the game, sitting at fourth and fifth in the Atlantic Division of the Eastern Conference. Toronto’s two points from the win allowed it to take over the fourth spot, while the Wings earned just one and fell into the fifth slot.
The Red Wings, who have battled numerous injuries this season, are trying to make the playoffs for the 23rd straight season after squeaking in last year and advancing to the second round before being eliminated by the eventual Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks. Forward Daniel Alfredsson, a longtime Ottawa Senator who joined Detroit this season, is no stranger to big games, but he said the atmosphere for the New Year’s Day game was something else entirely.
“It’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced,” Alfredsson said. “In the playoffs, it’s very loud, and it’s intense. You add another 85,000 people, it brings another dimension. It was really cool and something I’ll always remember.
“I think we all caught ourselves in the moment and just trying to take it all in,” Alfredsson continued. “It was pretty special … An experience, and especially when there’s something on the line. It’s not ideal, but for it to make it really interesting, it has to be, for the crowd to enjoy it as well.”
The crowd, which was nearly a 50-50 split of Toronto fans and Detroit fans, stayed engaged throughout the lengthy game, which was punctuated by frequent breaks to shovel snow off the ice. While the fans and players enjoyed the experience, playing outdoors in a significant amount of snow did present some quirks.
First, the snow prevented players from getting too flashy.
“I think both teams played pretty smart today,” Alfredsson said. “Under the circumstances there weren’t a ton of plays made. Simple, get it in, get a forecheck going. It’s fitting it went into overtime.”
Despite the snow, Alfredsson said the conditions were perfectly playable, though shootouts proved a bit trickier than normal. After the third period ended in a tie and neither team scored in overtime, Alfredsson could not convert during the shootout.
“I had the shot ready, and I thought if I could get it lateral, get it over [the goalie], I had him, but the puck slid away from my blade,” Alfredsson said.
“Looking back, I probably should have shot the puck,” Alfredsson added. “I thought I had control, but I think because the blade is so cold, and you don’t get the grip from the tape at all, my shot … it just glides away from my blade because it’s frozen. It made it a little bit harder. Some guys handled it better than I did.”
The cold also made it hard for players to stay hydrated, something Abdelkader discovered on an early trip to the penalty box.
“The water bottle was frozen, and the water bottles were frozen on the bench,” Abdelkader said. “Nothing came out. That was a big thing, too, was to try to stay hydrated because water wasn’t coming out of the bottles, so we kind of had to unscrew the top and get it out.”
The outdoor arena also necessitated a slight change of the rules so each team would have equal time skating against the wind. To that end, a horn sounded in the middle of the third period and in the middle of overtime, at which point the teams switched sides. One of those unusual horns came right as captain Henrik Zetterberg broke away toward the goal.
“I knew at the face-off before that we didn’t have that much time … but when it actually happened, I didn’t expect it,” Zetterberg said. “It was better that the buzzer went there instead of just if I was clear for a breakaway. I think that would have been worse.”
Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said he never talks to his teams after losses but that he did Wednesday. He told them they should be proud of their performance and that they did not allow themselves to get distracted by all the festivities leading up to the big event. The whole experience, he said, was an overall win, even though Detroit lost.
“To me,” Babcock said, “today was a home run for hockey.”