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Icing On The Puck: Hockey Fans And The NHL Winter Classic

NHL Winter Classic hockey game seat pads are displayed at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor ahead of the New Year's Day outdoor game between the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs.
Paul Sancya
NHL Winter Classic hockey game seat pads are displayed at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor ahead of the New Year's Day outdoor game between the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs.

The Detroit Red Wings are kind of playing a home game on New Year's Day — even if it'll be played about 40 miles west of their home ice in downtown Detroit.

Mike Babcock, the Red Wings head coach, told the NHL Network that might not be such a good thing, because home teams haven't fared so well in prior Winter Classics.

"The reason the home team doesn't have much success is there's probably a New Year's Eve party going on in everybody's house," he said. "So you gotta decide whether that's more important, or the game's more important."

There's much nostalgia surrounding outdoor hockey. And it's a vein the NHL successfully taps with the Winter Classic. But this is no small-time pond hockey. This is outdoor mega-hockey — at the University of Michigan's football stadium, capacity well over 100,000.

High Expectations

Last year's Winter Classic was canceled because of a player lockout. But this year is different, and it doesn't hurt that the game features the Red Wings and the Toronto Maple Leafs — two of the NHL's original six teams, from two of North America's most hockey-mad cities.

"Probably, it's gonna be cold," Maple Leafs fan Andrew Morris said in Detroit this week. "We're expecting a lot of blue. Basically, on the way down here, it was just a caravan of blue and white."

Morris was just one of thousands decked out in Maple Leafs gear at the Hockeytown Winter Festival, the place to be before the big game in Ann Arbor on New Year's Day. The crowd was split pretty evenly between red and blue. That went down to the family level.

'We're Ready For This'

Greg Blanchard sported a Maple Leafs jersey while his son, Derek, wore a throwback Detroit sweater.

Though they're from Winnipeg, Manitoba, Greg Blanchard is a lifelong Maple Leafs fan. And Derek Blanchard says he adopted the Red Wings as his team when he was 5 after the original Winnipeg Jets left town in the 1990s.

"I've stuck with them ever since," he says. "And the Winter Classic, we had my team versus my dad's here, so couldn't miss it."

Neither Blanchard was fazed by the prospect of the game time weather forecast — about 18 degrees, with an 80 percent chance of snow.

"We're ready for this," Greg said. "No problem that way."

"It's basically a summer vacation for us," Derek added.

Loyal Fans

Tom Crites was just outside the festival, looking happily exhausted, a pair of hockey skates slung over one shoulder.

A former hockey player and Detroiter, Crites now lives near Seattle. He says that whenever the Red Wings play the Vancouver Canucks, he tries to be there — usually, with many other Red Wings fans.

"The Canucks fans are not too happy about that," Crites says. "But the Red Wings players, they see 'em, and they give us high-fives and everything. So the players really appreciate it."

It's no secret that with so many former Detroiters now living elsewhere, the Red Wings draw loyal crowds no matter where they play. But since so many Maple Leafs fans have made the trek down from Toronto, there's no guarantee this will feel like a Red Wings home game.

The NHL estimates this game could draw up to 115,000 people — the biggest crowd ever at a hockey game.

Copyright 2013 Michigan Radio

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Radio in October, 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit. Before her arrival at Michigan Radio, Sarah worked at WDET-FM as a reporter and producer.