The Maple Leafs and the Red Wings face off during the first period of the Winter Classic in front of a reported 105,491 fans.
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ANN ARBOR — The snow fell. The beer flowed. The temperature dropped. A record was likely set.
All that was left was the making of a minor New Year’s Day legend in one of college football’s hallowed stadiums.
Yet this finish would come on an ice rink, and not on the turf at Michigan Stadium, where players such as Charles Woodson, Desmond Howard, and Tom Harmon cemented their place in college football history.
Tyler Bozak brought a different tone in the latest rendition of the Winter Classic. His shootout goal lifted the Toronto Maple Leafs to a 3-2 win over the Detroit Red Wings, but this game wasn’t just about two points in the standings or the continuation of one of the NHL’s oldest rivalries.
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The pairing of “Original Six” teams added another chapter to the short history of the NHL’s Winter Classic, the annual New Year’s Day game. It’s been played inside venerable baseball stadiums and within the walls of NFL stadiums. This year, it settled itself inside a college football stadium aptly nicknamed “The Big House.”
A Red Wings fan, coated with snow, watches during the third period. The Red Wings scored with less than six minutes remaining to force overtime, but lost in the shootout, 3-2.
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“Of all the outdoor games that have been played, I don’t know if there’s ever been an atmosphere like this,” said Detroit left wing Justin Abdelkader, whose goal with less than six minutes left in the third period sent the game to overtime. “Playing in a football stadium, there’s no real bad seats in a football stadium. It was unbelievable, from start to finish, the whole deal was great.”
In front of an announced crowd of 105,491 — believed to be a record for attendance at a hockey game, which will be confirmed by Guinness World Records — the showcase game provided visually stunning moments. The south half of Michigan Stadium appeared swathed in Detroit’s red and the north half in Toronto’s blue.
Vendors offered beer and hot chocolate spiked with Kahlua or Bailey’s Irish Cream — a rarity given that Michigan Stadium does not sell beer or liquor at football games. The facility received a temporary liquor license just for the Winter Classic.
Maple Leafs goalie Jonathan Bernier sported a tuque atop his goalie helmet and while some players wore lampblack under their eyes to avoid the glare from the stadium lights, Toronto defenseman Paul Ranger wore his in jagged tiger stripes across his face.
The most glaring facet of the outdoor game? Phil Kessel stated the obvious.
“It was definitely cold out there,” the Maple Leafs right wing said.
In 13-degree weather and under a winter weather advisory for Ann Arbor, fans streamed into the bowl of Michigan Stadium sporting blankets, beach towels, lettermen’s jackets, quilted jackets, hunting jackets, hockey jackets … anything to keep warm in what was, on record, the coldest Winter Classic since 2008.
“All the fans, I don’t know how they did it, I don’t know how they stayed warm,” Abdelkader said. “We had heat on the benches but I know it was cold up there.”
Toronto left wing James van Riemsdyk tied the game at 1-1 when he settled a shot from the point, which banked off his body and landed at his feet, and beat Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard (24 saves) to tie the game going into the third period.
Bozak and Abdelkader traded third-period goals, which forced overtime. Then, if the 105,000-plus fans weren’t chilly enough, fortified enough or raucous enough, it went to a shootout.
Bernier stopped Daniel Alfredsson, and Howard stopped van Riemsdyk.
Pavel Datsyuk scored on Bernier. Joffrey Lupul scored on Howard.
After Tomas Tatar couldn’t get a handle on the puck atop the snowy ice surface, it was Bozak’s turn.
“I was thinking I was going to shoot,” Bozak said. “I thought maybe I should shoot straight-on and I just tried to come in with a little speed and push him to the back of the net.”
Bozak skated in Howard and snapped a wrist shot from between the circles past Howard. Then, it was time to get out of the cold.
Nestled into the warm bowels of the Big House, Maple Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf took some perspective away from a virtual snow globe.
“I’ve got a lot more respect for players in the National Football League,” Phaneuf said. “They play in cold weather all the time and you see them out there on TV in the snow. It’s cold. You can feel it. I’ve got new respect for the NFL.”