Hockey always plays well outdoors
I had the chance to be part of the Frozen Diamond Faceoff on Jan. 15 in Cleveland as the Michigan Wolverines beat the Ohio State Buckeyes 4-1. I was there covering the game for FS Detroit and it was my first opportunity to witness first hand the phenomenon that has grown during the decade since the original CCHA event in 2001 -- dubbed the Cold War -- at Spartan Stadium between the Wolverines and Michigan State.
The event in Cleveland intrigued me because the city is devoid of either a college team or an NHL franchise. In fact, the city added the game as part of its second annual Snow Days program. The Cleveland Indians open Progressive Field from Thanksgiving on, building a skating track, a mini-rink for toddlers and an impressive bobsled-style hill called the "Batterhorn" where kids zoom to the bottom on oversized inner tubes. The OSU vs. U of M rivalry fit the Snow Days schedule and MLB's Indians reached out to the CCHA to see if they could make it work.
Mission accomplished. The game drew 26,000 fans and Snow Days will draw an additional 40,000-plus to Progressive Field in downtown Cleveland this winter. As I look at the proliferation of outdoor hockey events, the ancillary is what intrigues me.
In Cleveland, youth, prep and girls' teams all played games on the outdoor rink. It's not quite the "if you build it, they will come" mantra, but it's along those lines. These outdoor events become a reason to let more and more players connect with the roots of the game. In the moment, it is the time of their lives. Long-term, it ingrains a little bit of history and a touch of perspective.
Look, I get the economics of all of this. Retro sells. It's no different than fashion recycling -- look no further than skinny ties and narrow lapels that are currently all the rage: hardly new, but cool as always. Just like playing hockey outdoors. Why? Because that part of the playing experience isn't nearly as prevalent as it once was. Believe me, when I was a kid, the "neat" thing to do was to play a game indoors where the big kids played Jr. A at Windsor Arena. Now, even mini-mites get the opportunity to skate between periods at NHL rinks as part of intermission entertainment!
So, indoors becomes commonplace, outdoors unique. Is it trendy? Sure. But it is much more than a gimmick because the exhilaration of what it's like to chase the puck around the ice in an open air environment lasts forever. And as the NHL's Winter Classic on New Year's Day moves to Michigan next year, the supporting scene has endless possibilities.
The 2013 Winter Classic will take place in Ann Arbor between the Red Wings and the Toronto Maple Leafs, with the surrounding events -- including college hockey's Great Lakes Invitational tournament -- hosted downtown at Detroit's Comerica Park. Sure, some folks won't get it, with critics deriding the whole outdoor premise calling it boring and uncomfortable, with poor sight lines.
Talk about short-sighted. The reason the complementary events continue to grow around the games themselves is that by staging such events there is a chance to bring communities together through shared experience and interaction. Hopefully, Mr. Ilitch and the Tigers will open up Comerica at Thanksgiving like the Indians do with their park in Cleveland so everyone can be a part of what used to be common: heading outdoors to have some winter fun. Teams from all over -- on both sides of the border -- would have a chance to experience competing outdoors and families could enjoy a variety of activities.
And here's an idea: Maybe a media game could be part of the proceedings so naysayers can participate and replace their hot air cynicism with the fresh air sensation of playing hockey outdoors.
Like the first notion to take the game outside in Lansing, it's definitely worth a try... on many, many levels.