ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Before I gush over the 2013 Winter Classic – the greatest event in the history of hockey, if not mankind – let me be up front about a few things: I graduated from the University of Michigan. My first job was at the Detroit Free Press, where I covered Michigan football and then the Detroit Red Wings. Now that I’m the NHL writer for Yahoo! Sports, I still live in Ann Arbor – five miles from the Big House – and buy season tickets to Michigan games.
The truth is, I can’t give you a sober analysis of this. Back in my “Animal House” days, I looked more like Bluto, but now I feel more like Flounder. Oh, boy, is this great! I’m over-the-top, unprofessionally giddy. I have been dreaming about this for a long time – Leafs vs. Wings, the Big House, a record crowd of more than 110,000 people, an unprecedented spectacle and marketing gold mine.
No, I’m not saying this was my idea. I’m saying this was obvious.
“I think that this was inevitable, once they got it going, once they established it,” said Tom Anastos, the head coach of the Michigan State hockey team and former commissioner of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association. “When you think of it from many perspectives – one, the size and visibility; two, the economics – it tells you it’s going to happen at some point.”
Loathe as I am to admit it, the whole concept of big-time outdoor hockey started at Michigan State – and I missed out on it. The Cold War was held Oct. 6, 2001, in East Lansing, Mich. Michigan and Michigan State tied, 3-3, before a record crowd of 74,544. My wife got to go, but I was in western Canada with the Wings. I remember picking up the Vancouver Province and seeing a photo of Spartan Stadium spread across two tabloid pages. I was struck at what a big deal it was all the way on the other side of the continent.
Being a Michigan alum, naturally and immediately I thought if the Spartans could pull that off, the Wolverines could do it bigger and better. I thought about a college game at Michigan Stadium. I thought about an NHL game at Michigan Stadium – Leafs vs. Wings, ‘Hawks vs. Wings, an Original Six matchup that would draw fans from two markets. I suggested to Wings senior vice-president Jimmy Devellano that they put a temporary rink in brand-new Ford Field – the indoor home of the Detroit Lions – and sell out a series of games.
It was just a pipe dream. But then came the Heritage Classic and the Winter Classic and other outdoor events. Anastos doesn’t remember the year, but he remembers being in New York on business. He popped into the NHL offices to see commissioner Gary Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly. He brought up the idea of an NHL-college combo at Michigan Stadium. Nothing happened.
Early in the fall of 2010, I was walking up to the Big House when I spotted Wings center Henrik Zetterberg at the corner of Stadium and Ann Arbor-Saline. He was amid a sea of fans, but no one recognized him because he was out of context, a regular guy in street clothes, wearing a Tigers cap pulled down low. He has been to about a half-dozen Michigan football games, sometimes in the stands, sometimes on the sidelines, sometimes wondering what it would be like to be the center of attention there in a Winter Classic.
“After games, you’re down on the field, and you look around, and you see all the fans go crazy,” Zetterberg said. “It is a pretty cool feeling. It would be awesome to have a game there.”
Then came the Big Chill at the Big House on Dec. 11, 2010. Michigan beat Michigan State, 5-0, before the largest crowd ever to watch a hockey game. Michigan officials were overly enthusiastic with their initial figure of 113,411. There were a few empty seats in one upper corner of a stadium that routinely holds more than 110,000 for football. But the Guinness Book of World Records later certified the total at 104,173 – still blowing away the old world record by 26,370, a number greater than the capacity of an ordinary NHL arena.
As the fireworks shot into the night sky after the Big Chill, I stood on the field with Anastos. We talked about the idea he had pitched to the NHL once upon a time. He shrugged. He did what he could. Less than a month later, the morning after the 2011 Winter Classic in Pittsburgh, I ran into NHL chief operating officer John Collins at the airport. I bugged him about the Big House. He chuckled. He didn’t need me to tell him.
And now here we are.
“It’s been on the radar the whole time,” Collins said Thursday. “It’s one of the reasons we got Detroit in [the 2009 Winter Classic in Chicago]. We knew it would be great, and we just needed to figure out the right way to do it and the right timing. It all just came together.”
This isn’t perfect for everyone, even locally. Some Michigan State fans might be upset the game is on the campus of their rival university, and some die-hard Detroiters would prefer the Wings play their big game in, you know, their actual hometown – not in a college town 45 minutes west. Owner Mike Ilitch is among them. He has been a longtime booster of downtown Detroit and wanted his Wings to play in the home of his Tigers, Comerica Park.
But the compromise is that there will be a rink at Comerica Park, and it will host days of games leading up to the Winter Classic – youth games, college games, junior games, a minor-league game and an alumni game. After the Rangers-Flyers alumni game in Philadelphia last month, Mark Howe told me his dad, Gordie, might even be able to take a shift at age 84. Fingers crossed. Can you imagine what the reception would be for Mr. Hockey?
Visitors will stay at Detroit hotels. Off-ice events will be held at Detroit venues. The city will get the same sort of short-term boost it has gotten in the past from the Super Bowl, the Final Four and so on. About 150,000 to 200,000 people are expected to come downtown for the Hockeytown Winter Festival.
All of that helped persuade Ilitch to allow the main event at Michigan Stadium. But make no mistake, so did this: Officials realized the demand for tickets would be enormous. They still haven’t decided on how they are going to allot them or what they are going to charge. They are considering holding a lottery, which means the league is the one that will really hit the jackpot.
“I think that was the conversation with Mr. I,” said Tom Wilson, the Wings’ alternate governor. “If we want this thing to be shared with as many people as possible, we have to get outside these walls – or play a triple-header.”
From a larger perspective, Michigan Stadium made the most sense. It has been renovated recently and is a clean college site. Collins pointed out it is steeped in history like former Classic locales Wrigley Field and Fenway Park, but it has modern amenities. It has no advertising and lots of suites, so the NHL has no conflicts with corporate sponsors and plenty of entertainment space. It can sell, sell, sell.
The in-stadium experience should be as good as it gets. For a place that fits 110,000-plus, the Big House is relatively small. The fans pack in on metal bleachers, often sitting sideways or standing, especially when they’re wearing coats. They are close to the field, and so they will be fairly close to the rink. The sightlines are much better than a baseball park.
As for television, you’ve got an Original Six matchup – “Hockeytown vs. the Center of the Hockey Universe,” as Leafs general manager Brian Burke put it. You can involve a Canadian team in the Winter Classic for the first time, and it actually helps instead of hinders. You can capture both hardcore Canadian fans and casual American viewers because of the world-record element alone. None of the promotional material mentions Michigan Stadium. It’s all about the Big House. Size matters.
What could go wrong? The weather. It’s always a risk, but it’s even more of a risk when you spread out the event over a number of days. Parking. It can be a pain on game day in Ann Arbor, and it might be worse with new fans who don’t know the area. But that’s about it.
The biggest problem really is a pleasant one. NHL execs Colin Campbell and Kris King teased Collins after the news conference Thursday, joking that they would need a fleet of Zambonis and that he would try three rinks next time. Collins joked that pretty soon the NHL would take all of its games outside.
Bettman just smiled. How will the NHL top this in the future?
“We’ll worry about that,” he said, “after we do this.”
“Must have been Cabo eh bro!” Hall wrote.
Must have been.
In the eight games before the all-star break, Gagner had only one point – an assist. Then he spent five days in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, with Hall, Ales Hemsky, Shawn Horcoff and Ryan Whitney. He has racked up 15 points in five games since – eight goals, seven assists.
You can see his tan on TV. You can’t see his clear mind.
“I think every all-star break, if you look back at my past, has been good for me just to kind of get away from it all and kind of come back mentally fresh,” Gagner said. “I think the way the last couple seasons have gone, going into the break we haven’t been playing very well, and I think that wears on you as a player.”
Especially as a young player. Gagner might be in his fifth NHL season, but he’s only 22. He’s a classic case of a high draft pick who was rushed to the NHL by a struggling team and has had to learn on the job.
The Oilers drafted Gagner sixth overall in 2007. He has never played a minute in the minors, but he has never played a minute in the playoffs, either. He has been trying to develop as a player while the Oilers have been trying to develop as a team. He admitted it has been “tough to mentally be up all the time” while the team has languished at the bottom of the standings.
No one should judge a player on his best game or his hottest streak. You have to look at his body of work. But when a 22-year-old ties a team record held by Wayne Gretzky and Paul Coffey, it’s reasonable to wonder if it showcases some skills that have been there all along, waiting to come out.
Gagner will never be a Gretzky, but he could become a solid second-line center. He has put on about 10 pounds since entering the NHL and is now listed at 5-foot-11 and 190. He’s stronger and faster. He has had the chance to center Hall and Jordan Eberle on the top line lately, while Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, last June’s No. 1 overall pick, has had shoulder problems. So far he has seized the chance to prove he can be more productive playing with more skilled linemates.
“I think if I can continue to play the same way throughout the rest of the year, I can start to show people that it wasn’t just a fluke and I can play that way more consistently,” Gagner said. “I’m excited for that challenge.”
Gagner is in such a groove, he hasn’t been affected by the recent trade chatter. Some argue that the Oilers should trade him with his value at his peak; others, like me, argue they should hold onto him as part of their young core unless they receive an offer they can’t refuse. He’s a pending restricted free agent.
“It’s something that before the all-star break I would have worried about a little more,” Gagner said. “But to be honest, now I just want to focus on the right things, and that’s playing hockey.”
Must have been Cabo, eh, bro?
“That’s the secret,” Gagner said.
Eberle has been overshadowed by Hall, Nugent-Hopkins and now even Gagner. But he ranks ninth in the NHL in scoring with 54 points, and it isn’t because of a trip to Cabo.
Look at his development track, and you’ll see it was a little different than the others. The Oilers drafted him 22nd overall in 2008. He spent an extra year in junior instead of jumping straight to the NHL, and he made a couple of cameos in the American Hockey League.
At 21, he’s only about a year younger than Gagner, but he’s in his second NHL season instead of his fifth. He had more experience before he arrived in the NHL and joined the Oilers at a time when other top youngsters were breaking in. He gained even more experience with Team Canada at the world championships last year.
“Don’t forget he played one year more junior,” said Oilers associate coach Ralph Krueger. “He wasn’t the first overall pick, but what he did with Hockey Canada showed that there was more there than he was given credit for.”
Eberle isn’t large, listed at 6-foot, 185 pounds. But he’s smart, creative and deceptive, and he’s able to elude top defensemen. He has learned to read lanes better so his teammates can find him in more dangerous situations, and he has developed a quicker shot. The Oilers also have altered their power-play strategy this season, putting him in better position to make plays. His goal total has jumped from 18 as a rookie to 24 so far this season.
“His scoring chances have gone up dramatically,” Krueger said.
So has something else.
“I feel more confident, for sure,” Eberle said. “Obviously you put the puck in the net, you feel more confident.”
Brian Burke has long established that he does not like to wait until the trade deadline, when he feels the market is crowded, confused and full of bad deals. He prefers to act early, when it’s calmer and clearer, and he often kicks off the trading season.
But on Feb. 9, 2012, he said he wasn’t close to a deal. He said he didn’t mind switching off his phone during the Winter Classic news conference Thursday because he knew he wasn’t going to miss any important calls.
“There’s nothing materializing that we even have to talk about,” Burke said. “I got what I would describe as my first legitimate trade offer 48 hours ago, and that’s well after I like to do most of my work. It’s not something we’re going to do, but it’s the first one where I had to circle the wagons with the staff and ask everyone’s opinion. I’m not a deadline guy, but that may be when we have to look at this.”
Many teams are in the playoff race; few are out at this point. That’s not unusual for the salary-cap era. But the market seems unusually quiet. Some teams are choosing to re-sign pending unrestricted free agents; others are asking high prices for rentals. Buyers are waiting to see who falls out of the race, who becomes available and whether the prices fall before the Feb. 27 deadline.
Burke can afford to be patient and picky. The Leafs are playing well and seventh in the East. More important, they have rebuilt themselves to the point where they have long-term potential in the organization already.
“We have the second-youngest or third-youngest team in the league,” Burke said. “We have depth with the [AHL] Marlies. Everything’s going the right way for us. We don’t have to make a statement or do something short term. That doesn’t mean I won’t, though. If we can make a deal that doesn’t sacrifice us long term and gives us some punch from the deadline on, we’re going to do it.”
One thing they won’t necessarily do is rent out center Mikhail Grabovski. The sides didn’t agree to terms earlier this season, when his slow start coincided with the window they had set for negotiations. Now he’s hot. He has clicked with linemates Nikolai Kulemin and Clarke MacArthur again. Burke said the sides have not decided whether to resume negotiations during the season, but he hasn’t been afraid to keep pending unrestricted free agents in the past.
“I am not one of those guys who says I’m going to get something for someone,” Burke said. “I will keep a guy and lose him in the summer because it gives me more time to sign him and I might need that player to achieve what we need to achieve. … If we don’t agree to terms doesn’t mean that Mikhail Grabovski’s going anywhere.”
1. Detroit Red Wings: The Wings have won 18 straight at Joe Louis Arena. They look like Olympians. “It’s like playing the national team all the time,” said Oilers associate coach Ralph Krueger, the former head coach of the Swiss national team.
2. Vancouver Canucks: Great news that Henrik Sedin did not suffer a fracture when he took a slapshot off his right foot. But have to admit it would have been interesting to see if Daniel could excel without his twin brother the way Henrik excelled without him two years ago. Henrik scored 10 goals in 18 games while Daniel recovered from a broken foot in 2009-10.
3. Nashville Predators: The Preds are 14-3-1 in their past 18 games. Even more impressive, they are 12-2-2 against their division rivals this season – and the Central is the toughest division in hockey.
4. New York Rangers: Henrik Lundqvist continues to build his case for the Vezina Trophy, which goes to the NHL’s best goaltender. He is 4-1-0 with a 0.97 goals-against average in his past five starts.
5. St. Louis Blues: Injuries are starting to take a toll up front, and the Blues play 18 of their final 30 games on the road. Not good for a team with an 9-11-3 road record.
6. Boston Bruins: A 3-0 loss to Carolina? OK, the Bruins can’t beat the Hurricanes for some reason. A 2-1 loss to Pittsburgh? Happens. But a 4-1 win over Washington followed by a 6-0 loss to Buffalo? That last stinker makes the past week a little disconcerting.
25. Buffalo Sabres: Hmm. Lindy Ruff breaks three ribs in practice, misses a game and the boys blow out the defending Stanley Cup champions?
26. Anaheim Ducks: Teemu Selanne is one goal from 656, which would tie him for 12th on the NHL’s all-time list with senior vice-president of player safety Brendan Shanahan. Maybe a Shanaban could hold off Selanne for a few games.
28. Carolina Hurricanes: Smart moves by GM Jim Rutherford, signing Tim Gleason to an extension and considering the same with Tuomo Ruutu. Good players are hard to replace. Why move them for a rental fee if you can keep them at a reasonable price?
29. Edmonton Oilers: Hemsky is not playing like someone who desperately wants to be rented to a contender to compete for a Cup.
PLUS: NHL Players’ Association executive director Don Fehr was at Thursday’s Winter Classic news conference. He has met with Bettman since the All-Star Game, and they have taken the first baby steps toward labor negotiations. “We talked about a whole range of things, sort of from top to bottom, and how you get ready to talk,” Fehr said. “It was a good meeting. Gary and I talk not all the time, but regularly, and we’ll continue to do that.” The players have requested financial information, and the league plans to provide some soon. But that’s just a starting point. Neither side wants to discuss it. “If I’m giving them anything, I’ll give it to them,” Bettman said. “This isn’t a subject we have any interest in discussing publicly.”
MINUS: The collective bargaining agreement expires Sept. 15. After all the pomp and circumstance Thursday, how bad would it be if there was a lockout that canceled the NHL’s record-breaking Winter Classic?
PLUS: I’m even more convinced the Oilers’ Ryan Smyth would be a good fit as a rental for the Red Wings. One thing I failed to mention in Wednesday’s column: He not only knows Wings general manager Ken Holland from Team Canada, he knows assistant GM Jim Nill from Team Canada and played for coach Mike Babcock in junior. The Wings have some level of interest, and Smyth would consider waiving his no-move clause if approached about a potential trade to a contender. The question is whether the Oilers will receive a solid offer and whether they will even approach Smyth if they do.
MINUS: Nugent-Hopkins’ shoulder problems do not support criticism that the 18-year-old rookie is too small for the NHL at 6-foot-1, 175 pounds. His original injury was a fluke. He caught a rut and fell awkwardly into the boards. Though he said he suffered a new injury to the same shoulder when hit by Toronto’s Mike Brown, Krueger said it was an aggravation of the old injury – in other words, an extension of the fluke. “He’s in really good shape and well-conditioned and well-trained,” Krueger said. “He’d been hit so often this season by 220-pound defensemen. He’s playing against the best defensemen in the National Hockey League, and he never got hurt.”
MINUS: The Sidney Crosby counter is at 25 games.
“SB XLII, I picked the Patriots – and ticked off Doug Brown’s wife, the daughter of the Giants’ owner. This time, I’m picking New York.”
The morning after Super Bowl XLII, I stood in a serpentine line at the Phoenix airport with some other people headed home to Detroit – Doug Brown, whom I used to cover as a Red Wings beat writer, and his wife, Maureen, a daughter of New York Giants owner Wellington Mara.
I had left the Wings’ beat for the Lions’ beat during the lockout of 2004-05. I had picked the New England Patriots to beat the Giants in the Detroit Free Press, and though I hadn’t gone out on a limb – the Pats were undefeated, after all – I had been wrong.
Maureen had seen my prediction, and she enjoyed rubbing it in. Again and again. Every time we passed each other in that serpentine line.
And so I learned my lesson. Four years later, I got it right.