ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Playing outdoors could be just what the doctor ordered for two teams down on their luck.
The Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings’ woes during the month of December have been well-documented, on HBO’s “24/7” and otherwise. Being in the Winter Classic spotlight during troubling times can test players’ and coaches’ patience, but the charm of playing at Michigan Stadium could be what they need to loosen up and just play.
“It’s just out of the normal routine. It lets you kind of get away from everything, almost, for a little bit,” Leafs forward James van Riemsdyk said. “It’s definitely a little bit different of an environment and atmosphere, but it makes it a little bit more fun.”
Fun because it feels like more than just one part of an 82-game jigsaw puzzle that is the NHL season. The Winter Classic doesn’t come with the pressure of a playoff game, but the spectacle of playing outdoors makes it special.
“It brings you back to your roots,” Leafs centre Nazem Kadri said. “Sometimes when things aren’t going so well, the game of hockey’s not too fun. It’s a way to kind of lighten the mood but at the same time, points are points so we’ve got to be ready to play.”
The Leafs and Red Wings are tied in the standings, so obviously the points matter.
“There’s a lot at stake, for sure,” Toronto defenceman Cody Franson said. “We’re at the halfway point of the year now, and all these points are very important. You always see the stockpile of teams trying to battle for those last couple spots at the end of the year, and it’s points like these that become very critical. With the experience that we do have in our room, and they got a lot of experience over there, it’s not going to go missed. Both teams will be ready for this one.”
But thanks in part to a mediocre Eastern Conference, both teams are still in playoff position despite Toronto going 4-5-2 in its past 11 games and Detroit going 3-6-2 in that same span.
“Let’s not lose sight of the fact that we’re in a dog fight,” Leafs coach Randy Carlyle said.
Just practising outside recently seemed to help the Red Wings. They retreated to Comerica Park, where Tuesday’s alumni games were being held, and snapped their losing streak at six the following night.
“We need (to) win 10 in a row to be helped a lot,” centre Pavel Datsyuk said that day.
The old sports cliche goes that everyone has to take it one game at a time. That one game will be the NHL’s showcase regular-season event in front of more than 100,000 fans in Ann Arbor, Mich., and millions watching on television.
Van Riemsdyk knows what that’s like from his previous two Winter Classic appearances with the Philadelphia Flyers, first against the Boston Bruins at Fenway Park in 2010 and then against the New York Rangers at Citizens Bank Park in 2012. It didn’t bother him too much that the Flyers lost both games.
“Obviously you have better memories about it if you win, but it was a fun experience, the whole thing,” van Riemsdyk said. “You try to just enjoy the whole process of just everything about it. You don’t get many chances to play in games like this. You want to just enjoy it and have fun with it and try to treat it like a regular game.”
That’s Red Wings defenceman Niklas Kronwall’s approach. His eyes are on the standings more than the stands at the “Big House.”
“It’s two points on the line against a division rival,” Kronwall said. “That has to be our mind-set. Of course it’s going to be a lot of fun playing outdoors and all that, but in saying all this extra stuff, we have to focus on getting two points.”
At the midway point of the season, there are still points to be had for the Leafs and Red Wings, even if one blows the other out in the Winter Classic. Perhaps the cold, air and the fresh perspective of playing in outdoors will help.
Detroit went 6-0-1 after beating the Chicago Blackhawks at Wrigley Field in 2009. The biggest lesson Datsyuk learned that day?
“Move fast or you’ll be frozen,” he said.
It’ll be cold Wednesday, with the temperature expected to be around -9 C during the game. Five to 10 centimetres of snow are also in the forecast.
The weather could add another wrinkle to a game that has been on players’ minds for a while now.
“It’s tough not to (think about it),” Kadri said. “You’re always excited for something like that to happen, and it’s always special. Obviously you’ve got to plan ahead with all the family members and all that’s going on. Maybe it can sometimes be a little bit of a distraction.”
Carlyle considers managing the distractions of being in Toronto part of his job as coach of the Leafs. The Winter Classic adds another layer to what he likes to call the “white noise” around the team.
“The Winter Classic is an event that you’re going to involve everybody around you,” Carlyle said. “All your friends want tickets, your family want tickets, you want this, what do you do, how many buses are here? It’s all this and I’m going, ‘What the heck are we doing? We’re here to coach a hockey club.’ “
His counterpart with the Red Wings, Mike Babcock, knows these points are important. But he also doesn’t want his players to lose sight of the fun of the Winter Classic.
“You don’t remember everything in your life, but you remember moments,” Babcock said Tuesday. “This should be one. But it is way more fun when you win.”
—Follow Stephen Whyno on Twitter at @SWhyno.