The big game in the Big House

On New Years Day, staff writer Wyatt Fine-Gagné and managing editor Ben Carter-Whitney were among the 105,491 fans who packed into Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, MI to watch the 2014 NHL Winter Classic. For this edition of Cheap Seats, they compare notes on their experiences.


Ben Carter-Whitney (BCW): When the NHL lost the first half of its 2012-2013 season to a lockout, fans feared that the scheduled matchup between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Detroit Red Wings for the league’s annual outdoor Winter Classic game would be lost as well. Luckily the game was rescheduled and completely made up for the year-long delay. The big game in the Big House was loud, exciting, and oh-so-very cold. Did you also have to defrost yourself afterwards, Wyatt?


Wyatt Fine-Gagné (WFG): I think that game will go down as the coldest I’ve ever felt. So yes, I spent a good chunk of time that night trying to get some feeling in my extremities. As much as I hated the cold, however, I was happy that we got a snowy, picturesque Winter Classic, as opposed to a warm and rainy game like the one in Pittsburgh a few years ago.


BCW: The weather was definitely fitting for the occasion, but the scenic wintery day wasn’t exactly conducive to great hockey—snow was gathering on the ice just as fast as the grounds crew could shovel it away. This encouraged a dump-and-chase style of hockey, resulting in a somewhat unimpressive on-ice product. Skilled offensive threats such as Pavel Datsyuk and Phil Kessel just didn’t have the impact they usually do.


WFG: Both teams were having a hard time completing passes. It felt like the play was constantly being stopped by an offside or icing call born out of an errant pass. By the time overtime rolled around, I was just hoping someone would score so we could all head home and get warm.


BCW: You almost got your wish, too. Red Wings’ captain Henrik Zetterberg had a breakaway stolen from him midway through overtime when the buzzer sounded, indicating that the teams should switch ends. There was confusion from both sides; this stoppage of play is not part of regular NHL games, but then again, regular games aren’t played with one team skating into 16 km/h wind!


WFG: That reminds me, you were surrounded by Detroit fans who couldn’t have been too happy about that buzzer. The Big House was split in half, with Leafs fans on one side and Red Wings fans occupying the other. I quite liked being surrounded by blue and white, but you were across the stadium—behind enemy lines so to speak. How did it affect your experience?


BCW: Yes, a last-minute ticket swap meant that I watched the game among the Red Wings faithful. Despite the differing allegiances, however, the atmosphere was still incredible. Everybody was respectful; everybody was just happy to be there. At the end of the day, we were all hockey fans—united in our growing excitement as the game moved to overtime, and finally divided once again by our reactions to Tyler Bozak’s shootout winner for the Leafs.


WFG: I’d agree with that. There were Detroit fans sprinkled throughout the half I sat on, but I didn’t see anything that came close to unfriendliness. As much as I enjoyed myself, I did have a couple issues with the game. There were huge lineups for just about everything, and the Big House staff seemed a little unprepared for the volume of people.


BCW: I think everybody experienced some of that, whether in the stadium or while sitting in the standstill traffic going to and from the game. To a certain extent though, it comes with the territory. These are the things that people tolerate to be a part of an event of this magnitude.


WFG: I’ve been to a number of hockey games in my lifetime, but this is one that will stick with me. A trip to the rink is usually defined by the outcome of the game. With the Winter Classic, it was almost everything but the game that made the experience special.

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