On a cold and snowy day the Toronto Maple Leafs visited University of Michigan’s The Big House to face off against the Detroit Red Wings to ring in the New Year. It was the NHL’s marquee event, The Winter Classic, now in its 6th incarnation, pitting two Original Six franchises against each in the cold outdoor elements, something we are told that is to take hockey back to its roots.
Now there are some minor squabbles about the game such as it is unfair for two teams to play in unregulated elements. It is naturally far colder on a brisk January afternoon in Detroit then it is in either the Joe Louis Arena or Air Canada Centre, which can take a toll on players. The increased layering of clothing slightly inhibits movement and snow piling up in the corners, all causes the game to have a rustic feel. It may seem like a fun old time, but there are two very important points at stake for the winner of the game. A challenge other teams do not have to deal with.
Jonathan Bernier got the start for Toronto after playing better than James Reimer in recent weeks. He faced off against Jimmy Howard who only recently returned from a knee injury. The first period went surprisingly quickly with both goalies getting the better of the offense. It ended and the score was still deadlocked a 0-0. The players were learning very quickly that they needed to change the pace of the game to fit the elements. The snow piling up caused the puck to take odd rolls and bounces.
By the time the second period rolled around the crowd of over 105,000 finally had something to cheer about as Daniel Alferdsson scored on a breakaway where Henrik Zetterberg slapped it across the crease and it bounced of Alfie’s skate and in past a diving Bernier. With less than a minute remaining in the second James Van Riemsdyk banged in a loose puck during a scrimmage around the net with all the players trying to either get it in the net or as far away from Howard as possible. The almost 50/50 split of fan bases, were loud throughout the game.
The third period was an intense back in forth battle. Tyler Bozak put the Leafs ahead early but it was not smooth sailing for the rest of the period. Red Wings bruiser Justin Abdelkader tied the game up at 2-2 with less than six minutes remaining in the game. The overtime period saw no real threats of scoring with both teams playing solid defense to preserve the chance to win.
The fans in attendance (and to a much larger extent NBC who foots the bill for this extravaganza) were riled up for a shoot out. Both teams failed to score on their first attempts, while on the second round both Pavel Datsyuk and Joffrey Lupul scored to knot it at 1-1. After Bernier robbed Tomas Tater, Bozak stepped up with the game on the line. Realizing most of the shooters were playing it safe and bringing the puck in close to the net and trying to flick it over the pads of the netminder, he fired a hard wrister five-hole to seal the victory for the visiting Leafs.
Both teams saluted the crowd for the high-energy performance they put on. The US Olympic team named their men’s hockey roster following the game with Leafs forwards Phil Kessel and Van Riemsdyk and Red Wings goalie Howard all being named and brought out to loud cheers. Toronto is now looking to try to host their own Winter Classic in a few years since the 2016-2017 season is the Leafs 100th, a cause for celebration on par with how Montreal was feted a few years back for their own centennial. Talks are beginning about expanding BMO Field to fit 40,000-70,000, a perfect size for the league’s biggest showcase for the game. Toronto will surely do the league and sport proud and put on a hell of show.