DETROIT – It’s finally here!
No, not the halfway point of the regular season, though that arrives Monday in Nashville.
It’s Winter Classic time!
Hard to believe it was 22 months ago when the NHL first announced details to establish a new world-record for attendance at a hockey game by unveiling plans for the 2013 Winter Classic at 109,901-seat Michigan Stadium on the campus of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
The NHL lockout obviously squelched the game, first scheduled for Jan. 1, 2013. But now it’s game-on for the Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs who will meet for the 646th time in a regular-season game since the 1926-27 campaign.
While it’s been five years since the Red Wings defeated the Blackhawks in the 2009 Winter Classic at Chicago’s Wrigley Field, most of the current Detroit players weren’t on the NHL roster then. But that doesn’t mean they’re all rookies to the outdoor games, which have gained popularity in the last decade.
For defenseman Brendan Smith, the thought of playing on an outdoor rink brings back memories of his game-winning goal that helped Wisconsin upend Michigan at Camp Randall Stadium in 2010.
“It’s going to be such a great experience. Just to experience the whole atmosphere is going to be amazing. I’m ecstatic,” said Smith, who calls his third-period goal against Michigan one of his top five hockey moments.
Six current Wings played in the ’09 game: Daniel Cleary, Pavel Datsyuk, Johan Franzen, Niklas Kronwall, Mikael Samuelsson, and captain Henrik Zetterberg, who is looking forward to the atmosphere leading up to the big game.
“The whole experience, the day before, the skate we had with family and friends, the next day having the game, just playing in a different venue,” Zetterberg said. “I think this time around it’s going to be even better, to be on home turf and play in front of that many people.
“Everyone knows what’s coming around the corner. It’s going to be an important game. Both Toronto and us haven’t played great lately. It was a big win against them last time we played. The next one’s going to be even more important.”
The game’s outcome will have a significant role in the Atlantic Division standings as 11 points separate the first-place team from the fifth-place team. Entering Sunday’s schedule, the Wings (18-13-9) had a two-point lead over the fifth-place Leafs.
NOTEBOOK: So rich is the history between these two famed organizations that 145 players have worn both the Winged Wheel and Maple Leaf in their playing careers. But only one player managed to play in at least 500 games for both clubs – Hockey Hall of Fame forward Norm Ullman, who began his career in Detroit in 1955. He eventually played in 875 games for the Wings before he was part of an eight-player trade that sent Frank Mahovlich, Garry Unger and the rights to Carl Brewer to Detroit in 1968. … Since 1926, the Red Wings and Maple Leafs have battled 645 times in the regular season with Detroit claiming a 276-273-96 all-time record; 170-107-48 at home.
WHAT THEY’RE SAYING ABOUT THE WINTER CLASSIC
On dealing with the cold weather:
“I think it’s easier for us than the fans. We’re moving around. Last time in Chicago we started with a lot of clothes underneath and after each period we took more and more off and at the end of the game you played like almost a normal game.
“I think we have heaters underneath the bench. That kept us warm at Wrigley Field and I’m sure it will do the same at the Big House.”
On playing in his first outdoor game:
“I think this is going to be a pretty unique experience, just with the size of the crowd and being in Michigan, for my family and all that. Definitely anticipating it and looking forward to it. It’s kind of a hectic time with Christmas and the fathers trip, a lot going on in two weeks, but it’s good stuff, fun.”
On last time he played outdoors:
“We used to skate on a lake in middle school. Skating outdoors at Comerica (Park), that was pretty fun and kind of gets you ready for it. Practice at the Big House should be big. At Comerica the rink seemed so small and had that wide-open feeling. I think it’s going to be even more so at the Big House. It’s going to feel real small on the ice, so you got to get used to that and adjust.”
On dealing with the cold weather:
“They try to do their best to keep us warm on the bench. Got the black under the eyes. I got two sets of gloves, so once one gets cold and wet, I can switch over to a nice, dry, warm pair of gloves. That will take a little bit of that cold factor out of it. I heard it’s supposed to be like 15 degrees and with the wind chill, skating into that cold air is going to be tough, but you just got to adjust. Play and have fun and see how it goes. It’s one of those experiences you’ll put up with the cold just to have that experience.”
On his memories of playing at Wrigley Field:
“The whole idea of playing outdoors was cool. Pretty much all of us, up until that point, hadn’t played outdoor hockey in 20 years (except for Ty Conklin) since we were kids.
“That’s the first thing. The second thing was playing at Wrigley, that type of setting, with the fighter jets going over. It was a pretty cool experience.”
On dealing with the cold weather:
“I think the glare is the most concern. It’s not cold. It’s cold early when you get out there but once you get going it’s not cold at all. You over-heat yourself and it gets almost too hot. You got to peel off layers. The wind, when you’re skating against it, (is tough).”
On the last time he played outdoors:
“Where I’m from in Sweden we don’t get ice on the ponds very often so it’s just a couple winters. … I haven’t skated a lot at all outside, so it’s going to be an amazing experience. The year after I left (the University of) Maine, they played at Fenway (Park), so I missed that. I haven’t played a real outdoor game, so it’s going to be exciting.
On dealing with the cold conditions:
“We got some extra thick shirts underneath our gear. I don’t think you’ll think about it (the cold) too much. I think you’ll be real excited to play in the game.”
On playing in front of 109,000 spectators:
“It’s going to be crazy. I never been to a football game there, some of the guys have, they said it’s a crazy atmosphere. Little different from a hockey rink because the crowd is a little further away. It’s going to be an amazing experience to play in front of that many people.”
On dealing with the cold at Camp Randall in 2010:
“It was really cold. Can’t remember temperature but my dad said it was colder there than it will be for the Winter Classic. I just remember people with no shirts on, partying. It was quite an experience. I can only imagine what it’s going to be like on a bigger stage and in a professional game.”
With that, here’s a look ahead to this week in Hockeytown:
MONDAY – at NASHVILLE (17-18-4): This game – No. 41 in 90 days – concludes the first half of the Red Wings’ busy season and the final time they will face the Predators in the regular-season. … The Predators have struggled as they have floundered near the bottom of the Western Conference. They’re one of two teams without a shootout win this season, with New Jersey being the other, however, the Preds are the only team not to score a shootout goal as six different skaters have gone 0-fer in 11 attempts. … Nine of Nashville’s last 18 goals have come on the power play, including PPGs in seven of the team’s last eight games. The Preds’ power play remains one of the league’s most potent, while its home power play ranks among the league’s top five. The Preds are now 14-3-2 when they score a power-play goal and defenseman Shea Weber leads the club with 14 power-play points this season. … Eight of Nashville’s 17 wins this season have come by one goal – the team is 8-0-4 in one-goal games – this season. Nashville is 14-1-2 when its scores first, including a 2-0 win over the Red Wings on Nov. 19 at Joe Louis Arena. … The Predators have had good offensive balance as six players have collected at least two points each in the last two games, led by defensemen Shea Weber (nine points in last eight games) and Seth Jones (three points in last three games).
PLAYER TO WATCH: The son of former NBA power forward Popeye Jones, the Predators rookie defenseman Seth Jones is currently ranked No. 2 among all rookies in average time on ice (21:06). The 6-foot-4 blueliner ranks among the league’s top 24 rookies in points (13), assists (10), goals (3), and shots (52), while ranking fourth in blocked shots (59), sixth in power-play points (6), and10th in power-play goals (2) among first-year players. … The former U.S.NTDP star picked up his first multi-point game on Saturday, assisting on two goals in the Predators’ 3-2 home win over Los Angeles.
WEDNESDAY – vs. TORONTO (19-16-5): Well, this is the one that everybody has anticipated since it was first announced nearly two years ago. The hockey world got a sneak peek of this Original Six clash 11 days ago when the Red Wings posted a 5-4 shootout victory at the Air Canada Centre. It was the Wings’ first win in seven shootouts this season and their first in 12 tiebreakers dating back to the ’13 season. Their pre-Christmas meeting fueled the intensity for this game that will be played in front a world-record crowd expected to top 107,000 fans inside Michigan Stadium. “I think this rivalry's growing and growing. It's going to continue to grow,” Leafs forward and Toronto native David Clarkson said. “It's going to be there and they're a team that's close by. Any time you have an organization or a team that's close, you always have that playoff-type feeling.” … Forward James van Riemsdyk will make history in this game becoming the first skater to play in three outdoor games, equaling former NHL goalie Ty Conklin who played in outdoor games for Edmonton (2003), Pittsburgh (2008) and Detroit (2009). Van Riemsdyk, the Leafs’ second-leading scorer, played in the 2010 and 2012 Winter Classic games with the Philadelphia Flyers. Center Dave Bolland is the only other Leafs’ player who has NHL outdoor game experience, though he will miss Wednesday’s Classic with a severed ankle tendon suffered in early November.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Not known for being much of a shootout marksmen during his career, Joffrey Lupul is having much better success this season. He’s one of three NHL skaters, with at least four attempts, to not miss this season. Washington’s Eric Fehr and Edmonton’s Jordan Eberle are the others. … Lupul was also part of Leafs’ history this month when he and Mason Raymond each produced four points in the Leafs’ 7-3 win against the Blackhawks on Dec. 14. It was only the third time that the Leafs had two players each register at least four points in the same home game since Air Canada Centre opened in February 1999. … in 16 career games against Detroit, Lupul has registered eight goals and 13 points, including two power-play goals and a game-winner.
SATURDAY – at DALLAS (19-12-6): This is the last meeting of the year against the Stars, who claimed a 4-3 victory on Rich Peverley’s overtime goal from the high slot at Joe Louis Arena last month. … With Friday’s 4-1 win over Nashville, the Stars have earned a point in five consecutive games (4-0-1), while equaling their longest home winning streak (3) this season. … Two of the NHL’s top-scoring rookies currently reside in Dallas with forwards Alex Chiasson and Valeri Nichushkin each collecting 19 points through 37 games. Chiasson has eight goals and 11 assists, while Nichushkin has produced seven goals with 12 assists. While the Stars have had a much better month, going 7-3-3 in December, their power play continues to sputter, particularly at American Airlines Center, where they are 2-for-58 this season. Only four skaters – Tyler Seguin (3), Cody Eakin (2), Shawn Horcoff (2) and Chiasson (2) – have scored more than one power-play goal. … Forward Ray Whitney, who played for the Red Wings in the 2003-04 season, is 18 shots from becoming the 13th active player to reach the 3,000 shots on goal plateau.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Dallas captain Jamie Benn collected his 12 goal of the season last Friday, scoring just 42-seconds into the contest, jump-starting the Stars’ 4-1 win. He has three goals and five points in his last four games. Friday also marked the captain’s 300th career NHL game. Since joining the league in 2009-10, Benn has produced 226 career points, including 94 goals. The 24-year-old currently shares 12th in the league with 21 assists this season, and ranks second on the club with 33 points, just four behind Seguin.
HAPPY NEW YEAR!
Follow Bill Roose on Twitter | @Bill_Roose
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