Thursday, January 2, 2014

Winter Classic All Style, No Substance

winter classic leafs red wings
The Winter Classic is really, really cool and breathtakingly beautiful. It also really sucks.

Don't get me wrong, walking into the Big House and looking around at the enormous crowd as the snow fell and the teams took to the ice is a moment I'll never forget and it was every bit as magical as you expect. Magic doesn't keep you warm, however, and about five minutes into the game you start to question your own intelligence.

I definitely came prepared for the elements too. Here is a list of the clothes I wore:

- winter jacket with hood
- tuque
- scarf
- wool gloves
- leather gloves over wool gloves
- hoodie
- long sleeve shirt
- t-shirt
- jeans
- pajama bottoms
- long underwear
- thick pair of winter socks
- thicker pair of winter socks
- sneakers

In the hotel room before I laughed at the elements. I was going to be so warm. I'm an idiot.

Yes, my downfall was definitely wearing sneakers. My toes were freezing as I sat in my seat to the point I began to wonder how I would justify losing a toe or two for hockey. Well, you see, Tyler Bozak was having himself a game and that doesn't happen very often. I have 10 toes, so I felt like it was a fair trade. Stupidly, I don't actually own winter boots. I live in an apartment so don't have to shovel, and my tobogganing days are over. When would I need any? Oh, maybe if I planned to spend New Year's Day sitting outside in -15 degree weather. In my defence, my friend Geoff was wearing arctic quality boots that were probably stolen from the old man in Home Alone and his feet were reaching the point of freezing too. We never had a chance.

Thankfully, the PA blasted enough music to get people moving and dancing in their seats, because otherwise the chilling winds and relentless snow would have frozen everyone into place. Seeing 100,000 people rock out to Jump Around was pretty fun. White people love Jump Around.

The elements weren't the only negative either. Being a part of a record setting crowd for an outdoor game was another really cool part of the Winter Classic experience, but the reality of the situation quickly eroded its magic as well. There were so many people you couldn't do anything or go anywhere. We left our seats during the second intermission to take a walk and get our legs moving to convince any blood to circulate in the lower half of our bodies and it took nearly half the intermission to reach the concourse entrance, which was maybe 10-15 rows below our seats. Oh right, 100,000 people is a lot of people, who would have guessed? If anyone was brave enough to go to the bathroom they missed almost the entire period. The lines for the bathroom, concessions, and merchandise were so long were skipped them all and just huddled in a stairwell for a few minutes. It was productive.

Greater creativity on our part was needed to better enjoy the game. Shout out to the guy who had a flask disguised as binoculars.

winter classic crowd leafs red wings
In a sense it was nice that the Big House packed in its patron like sardines. Being forced to touch your neighbours at least provided some much needed body heat, although my extremities were probably going to be left in Michigan. You were also lucky if you were next to someone tall who could cut down on the wind hell bent on reaching your exposed face.

All this to watch garbage hockey. You know going in you aren't going to see a masterpiece, but you can't really prepare yourself for just how ugly the hockey will be. The ice conditions were probably great, but because the snow failed to let up the hockey was terrible, no matter how frequently the ice crew shoveled. It was amazing the two teams scored at all because for the first period it looked like the best bet for a goal was throwing the puck the length of the ice on net and hoping for a crazy bounce. Passes couldn't be handled and everything was dump and chase, because carrying the puck was just asking for a turnover. In a sense the choppy conditions favoured the Leafs. They don't know how to play with the puck under ideal conditions, so it's nice for the weather to force Detroit to ditch their puck possession game plan as well.

That said, it was at least a great view of garbage hockey. We sat in the Leafs end of the stadium about two-thirds of the way up, which I was initially worried would be too far from the ice, but ended up providing amazing sight lines and was much closer than anticipated. Hosting outdoor games in a football stadium opposed to a baseball stadium is definitely more practical, even though baseball stadiums look nicer and have something more romantic about them. Another example of how the Winter Classic is style over substance.

winter classic view leafs red wings
I'm not a total curmudgeon, however. My heart was warmed. The roar of the crowd for Toronto tallies was awesome and made everything worth it (if only temporarily) and pulling out a win in Ann Arbour was special (Bozie be praised). But anyone who waxes on about the beauty of the game and doesn't acknowledge how brutal it was to sit there was probably in a box. I hated the people in the boxes.

When you ask most people about their experience at the Winter Classic I'm sure it will be all positive. It has to, everything but the magic of the game was so awful and what people had to go through to get to and from the game was even worse. You have to lie to yourself.

We left our hotel at 10am, and what was normally a 20 minute drive turned into an adventure that didn't get us into our seats until moments before puck drop. There were cars in the ditch at various points along the highway and getting out of first gear was rare. The weather played a major role, but so too did the lack of public transit options (in Michigan the car is still king, I guess) and the small road that everyone had to use to get into and out of the city. I get that the city of Ann Arbour is smaller than a game day crowd, but people must really love college football to use such poorly planned infrastructure consistently for games.

And for getting to the stadium at least people were arriving at different times. Some people arrived as early as 6:30 am for tailgating. Leaving the stadium was a different matter. There are still people stuck at the border, I'm sure.

The thing is, in the back of my mind I knew of all these negatives when I bought the tickets. I didn't really think it would impact my enjoyment that much because I figured seeing the Leafs in their first outdoor game was too good an opportunity to pass up and that the magic of the moment would trump everything else. Too bad Harry Potter isn't real, because the beauty and magic of the event can't make you forget about the cold, hard elements.

Despite everything negative about the Winter Classic, it was a great experience and I did have a lot of fun. See, I'm working on convincing myself already. I'm sure watching it on TV next year beside a warm fireplace will be a more enjoyable experience, but I'm not going to pretend it is nearly as cool.

Even though I know better, this probably won't be my last outdoor game. With rumours of another Winter Classic held in Toronto I'm already searching for the finest Long Johns (and maybe some winter boots). Why, considering everything negative you just read, would I be so stupid? I'm a Leafs fan. I'm a masochist who doesn't learn and can't help but shell out obscene amounts of money to see sub-standard hockey, even if it costs me a toe.

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