ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- The NHL Winter Classic has become a marquee event for the sport of hockey, but the 2014 NHL Winter Classic was always going to be different.
There was going to be a different venue, both in sheer size and design. The visiting team ensured there would be a different dynamic in the crowd. And when people woke up Wednesday morning, it was clear the weather was going to be a little different than recent Winter Classics spent in places like Boston, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.
Simply, Michigan Stadium delivered on its uniqueness in a demonstrative way.
"It was the best experience I've probably ever had playing hockey," said Red Wings forward Justin Abdelkader, who grew up this state and went to Michigan State, a blood rival of the Wolverines from the University of Michigan. "It was awesome. It brings you back to your childhood days when you were out in the back yard or playing on a pond. It was a lot of fun. I was just thankful to have the opportunity."
The Toronto Maple Leafs defeated the Detroit Red Wings 3-2 in a shootout, with the announced attendance of 105,491 making it the largest crowd for a game in NHL history.
A raucous atmosphere in the bowl at the Big House was evident from the first time the public address announcer said the words "Toronto Maple Leafs" and "Detroit Red Wings."
The size of the stadium ensured there were would be plenty of seats available for fans of both teams. The size of the fan bases involved ensured there would be plenty of red and plenty of blue in the crowd.
NHL games have been played in football stadiums before, but Michigan Stadium's compact bowl design meant fans were close to the action and recent renovations improved acoustics and made it a roaring audio experience.
It wasn't a complete block of red at one end and sea of blue at the other, but Red Wings fans dominated the south end zone and Maple Leafs supporters occupied the north end.
"It was an unbelievable experience, one that words can't describe the feeling from when both anthems were going and the building was just ... so much energy," Maple Leafs captain Dion Phanuef said. "It's cold but the fans were still here with such great support. The amount of Leaf blue was just, our fans are amazing. They always support us, no matter where we're at. It was an unbelievable experience to be a part of and one I'll never forget."
Chants of "Let's go Red Wings" and "Go Leafs go" filled the air before the game began and persisted throughout. Both anthems became sing-a-longs, perhaps more of a tradition in Canada but Zach Brown Band had plenty of help with the Star-Spangled Banner.
Some of the signature songs and organ medleys from Joe Louis Arena were imported 45 miles to the west, including a rousing rendition of Journey's "Don't Stop Believing."
"It was great," Abdelkader said of the fans. "All of the fans, I don't know how they did it, how they stayed warm. We had heat on the benches, but I know it was cold up there and it was windy. They battled the conditions and just made it an unbelievable atmosphere. Of all the outdoor games like this, I don't know if there's been an atmosphere like this."
The snow began early in the morning Wednesday and did not stop. The original NHL Winter Classic at Buffalo's in 2008 at Ralph Wilson Stadium brought the term "snow-globe effect" into the NHL lexicon, but this precipitation was more consistent and came down with greater force.
A steady snowfall created a different visual for the television audience. It also delivered different conditions for the players to handle. NHL Facilities Operations Manager Dan Craig and his crew of rink builders became rink managers on game day, and that meant a lot of snow shoveling.
There were 10 guys on skates with wide shovels working in unison to remove the snow during every television timeout.
"They did an extraordinary job," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said. "You could tell as the logo started getting more covered when we needed to shovel. It actually looked like synchronized swimming, so to speak. They did a great job. Listen, whatever the conditions were, it was the same for both teams. But the ice was good, and I thought they did a very good job of getting the snow off to the extent possible. But, again, we're playing outdoors and that's what you get when you play outdoors. When you get the elements, you get the elements."
Toronto's captain agreed with Bettman.
"I thought the NHL did a good job," Phanuef said. "The guys who were keeping the snow off the ice were really doing a consistent job in every break of coming out and cleaned it, but there was a lot of snow that fell. I was watching them shovel it and you could see the piles by the time they were down there. ... The ice conditions were good. The ice was real hard, but the snow on it made it difficult to keep the puck flat."
There was entertainment down on the field from Zach Brown Band and Mayor Hawthorne. The United States women's hockey team for the 2014 Sochi Olympics was announced during the second intermission.
Following the game, the men's team was announced, complete with kids wearing the jerseys of the 22 players selected who were not in this game. Those kids complemented appearances by James van Riemsdyk and Phil Kessel of the Maple Leafs and Jimmy Howard of the Red Wings.
"To me today was a home run for hockey," Detroit coach Mike Babcock said. "I think for a fan today, for those kids that were skating on the ice, those kids that were introduced for the Olympians, all those things were very special."
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