NORTH SALEM, NY– New Year’s Day used to be reserved for a steady diet of college football Bowl games and the their associated gambling. But since some genius in a suit decided to space out the marquee Bowl games over the span of a week, a new king of sports – with it’s own heavily marketed platform – now comes in like Baby New Year and is called the NHL Winter Classic.
The event is now six years old and reached new heights as almost 106 thousand people filled a venue built, coincidentally, for college football. The University of Michigan’s “Big House” hosted this border war between Original Six franchises, the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs. If spectators enjoy football in the snow, why should outdoor hockey be any different? Television and other media ratings proved our romanticism with sports – even a niche one – played in adverse conditions of snow, single digits, and sub-zero wind chill numbers.
Olde Tyme Hockey becomes meshed with The Classic, as the forgoing of revenue-generating third logos for a slight yellowing of white stripes, adds a “Toast of Yore” to the uniforms. The sweater homage pre-dates the rookie years of Gordie Howe and Alex Delvecchio for the Wings and “Bashin Bill” Barilko for the Leafs, with a young Stan Fischler (who is 81!) covering them for local newspapers.
Play mimicked a bygone era as the weather and ice conditions made modern tape-to-tape, rink-wide passes impossible. Players adapted by keeping the puck on their stick or opting for ten-foot passes in the attacking zone. “Dump and chase” tactics were equaled by “crashing the net” to create scoring opportunities, making hockey historians smile north and south of the Canadian border. Nothing says olde tyme hockey like the cross-check to the jaw. as perpetrated by Joffrey Lupul (Leafs) on Patrick Eaves. That left Toronto shorthanded for two minutes; the latter with a jaw that had to be reset (ouch), and the former $10K lighter in the wallet.
Holding court over the play-by-play was the best in the business, who now only works an abbreviated schedule of games as opposed to his old break neck employment, Doc Emrick. The former voice of the Flyers and Devils understands the place of motion picture Slapshot in the hearts of hockey diehards and finds new ways to reference the best movie in cinematic history. To paraphrase, Emrick noted of the 500,000 living Michigan alumni, one is Strother Martin – or better known in the hockey world as the fictitious Charlestown Chiefs GM Joe McGrath. Gold, Doc. Pure gold… There was also the frozen marble inside the whistle of head referee that had to be “warmed” by rink side color analyst Pierre McGuire after the first muted attempt of said whistle.
In all the sights and sounds of the NHL Winter Classic, part of me has reservations about expanding this spectacle into the Stadium Series. Hey NHL, learn from the NCAA: keep things relegated to New Year’s Day.