On the cold, snowy New Year’s Day 2014, Ann Arbor Michigan played host to the most highly attended hockey game ever played. Over 105,000 fans packed the ‘Big House’ stadium at the University of Michigan to witness the Toronto Maple Leaf’s 3-2 shootout victory over the Detroit Red Wings.
The Winter Classic has become an annual tradition in the NHL, pitting old rivals against one another in an outdoor game hearkening back to hockey’s very roots. Despite the fact that there was a world-record crowd on hand to witness the spectacle, the match feels very much like a pick-up game of pond hockey. The snow is falling, it’s bitterly cold outside, players were wearing toques during the warmup (Toronto goalie Jonathan Bernier even wore a toque throughout the game), and the atmosphere was jovial. The fans were divided along center ice into a sea of red on one side, and blue on the other, each braving temperatures far below zero to witness the outdoor spectacle.
Throughout the game, the snow played havoc with the puck, causing errant bounces and difficulties with passing and stick-handling. With a little help from the shovel brigade – who took to the ice every few minutes to clear off mounds of snow – the players adapted to the inclement conditions and the game became a hotly contested battle for pride and outdoor supremacy. Detroit opened the scoring in the second period with a goal by Daniel Alfredsson, the veteran Swede hated by Toronto fans from his time captaining the Ottawa Senators. Toronto soon answered with a goal of its own by James van Riemsdyk, the popular winger who was playing in his third Winter Classic.
Toronto took the lead in the 3rd period when a shot by captain Dion Phaneuf was tipped in by Tyler Bozak. It was bitterly cold in the stands, and Toronto fans were hoping that the team could protect the lead and cruise to a quick victory – but as with all great rivalries, Detroit would not go down without a fight. Justin Abdelkader scored for the Red Wings with just over five minutes left in the game to tie it up and send the match to overtime.
Overtime saw several good chances on both sides of the ice, but no heroes. It would take a shootout to decide this one. When Detroit went up by a goal in the shootout due to Pavel Datsyuk’s fancy stick-work, things were not looking good for the boys in blue. Back-to-back goals by Joffrey Lupul and Tyler Bozak, coupled with a Detroit miss, sealed the deal for the Leafs, however. Toronto had won what, by many measures, could be considered the biggest hockey game ever played. The standout performance of the game was Toronto goalie Jonathan Bernier. He earned first-star honours for his stellar play, stopping 41 of 43 shots – a Winter Classic record.
The most poignant moment of the game was not the shootout-winning goal by Tyler Bozak, nor was it the earth-shaking chants of “Go Leafs, go!” by crowds of 50,000-plus Leafs fans. It was the unprompted, spontaneous rendition of “O Canada” that erupted from the crowd immediately following the Leafs’ win. The Winter Classic truly is hockey as it was meant to be played.