ANN ARBOR, MICHIGAN – In essence, the NHL’s annual Winter Classic outdoor game is like improv comedy: when it’s good, it’s excellent – and when it’s not good, well, you probably don’t want to stick around for all that long to see the end.
Fortunately for the world's top league, there has never been a full-on weather disaster to completely derail what has become a marquee event. And the 2014 game at Michigan Stadium was no different; in spite of blustery winter weather and driving conditions best described by not describing them at all, the picture at the sixth Winter Classic Wednesday morning looked like a Norman Rockwell painting.
Once again, the NHL looked like it had Mother Nature on its payroll.
When you saw the joy on the faces of Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs fans alike outside the massive stadium (football capacity: 109,901) you saw why the momentum for this spectacle is only building from year to year and why it has usurped the all-star game in popularity among fans and league advertisers.
This is my third Winter Classic and this time I wanted somewhat of a fan’s perspective, so rather than park with the media slugs just outside the facility, I took a 20-minute walk from quaint downtown Ann Arbor to the ‘Big House’ the morning of the game.
It felt like the college football experience had been transferred to hockey. I saw people of every age and color, mostly in Wings or Leafs jerseys, but a few wearing another team’s logo (the Sharks fan must have been in culture shock for more than a few reasons); I saw a father and son dressed for the conditions (listed at minus-10 degrees Celsius) wearing matching camouflage; I saw college students living in ramshackle houses on Main St. all gathered together on their front lawns, hooting and hollering positively if they saw a group of Wings fans, sneering and cursing when a pack of people wearing blue and white walked by. I saw people selling parking spots for $70 and other people happily snapping them up.
You hate to say it when the league and players put so much into making the event an NHL-caliber game, but the contest itself really is secondary to the build-up. Whether it was the kids playing on an adjacent rink or the cries of ‘Go Leafs Go’ to nobody in particular at my hotel in suburban Canton, there was nothing to suggest people were going to sob if their team didn’t end up on the winning side of the scoresheet. None of them were going just to see their team win. They were going to say they had been a part of it. They were going to feel a sense of community no regular NHL arena could provide.
In the end, all the Winter Classic experiences are more about the outdoors and the tribe – the momentary thrill of something extremely out of the ordinary – than the particulars of the game played in it.