Due to popular demand from alumni of the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs, the Original Six franchises dressed two full squads each for a double-header of outdoor hockey great shinny, fittingly played in the centre of a baseball diamond.
So what if they’re a step or five slower?
When the sun peaked through the clouds and a dusting of midday snow fell on the red-and-blue sweaters that circled the ice and filled the stands, the final afternoon of 2013 felt like a postcard jammed inside a snow globe wrapped in a child’s favourite memory.
“When I was a kid, we played outdoors all the time. Once a week we played indoors, and it was a privilege. A hundred years later, it’s flipped the other way. Now you play indoors all the time, and it’s a privilege to play outdoors,” said Red Berenson, the 74-year-old Detroit alumni and head coach of the Michigan Wolverines.
The games, of course, were free of body-checks (Al Iafrete committed the day’s lone penalty) and defensive responsibility, yet full of fun moments. Play for play’s sake.
“It’s a real honour when people want to come and fork out their money to see you play,” said the Leafs’ Stew Gavin, who scored in Game 1. “The quality of hockey might not be what it was a number of years ago, but it was still nice they enjoyed watching us play.”
Here are some fun things we learned from the Alumni Showdown double-header, which the home team swept in a pair of one-goal games.
Your resume must be impeccable to make the Red Wings’ A team.
Members of Detroit’s featured alumni team, which took to the ice for the second game on Tuesday, had to meet at least one of the following criteria to make the cut: (a) be a two-time Stanley Cup champion, (b) belong to the Hockey Hall of Fame, or (c) have your name engraved on one of the NHL’s individual trophies.
Call him Chris Celly-os.
After Chris Chelios scored to make it 2-0 Wings in the first period, the Hall of Famer sped back towards the home end, dove and slid on his back in celebration. The overt display of joy made Nail Yakupov sick.
“I’ve seen him do that in practice on a clean sheet of ice, and I wasn’t expecting him to do it in a game like this,” said Niklas Lidstrom. “But it was awesome.”
When Tie Domi sniped one on a breakaway in the second period, the former Leaf made a point to skate over the Wings’ bench and playfully tap Chelios on the head.
The Red Wings do pregame rituals right.
Joe Kocur wore a Bob Probert jersey for the introductions, Gordie Howe dropped the ceremonial face-off, Vladimir Kostantinov was honoured on the ice, and Steve Yzerman was the last Wing to make the walk from dugout to the rink:
Playing alongside 33-year-old Jiri Fishcer in the first alumni game was a man only 41 years his senior, the legendary Red Berenson—a man who retired from playing two years before Fischer was even born.
The self-proclaimed “senior citizen of the team” and a veteran of the 1972 Summit Series, Berenson held his own as the eldest active alumnus on either club.
“He’s my new idol. If I can get in my 60s or even 70s and be invited to games, it’d be fantastic,” said Leafs alum Stew Gavin.
The last 14 seconds still mean something.
With Wings up by a single goal and the Leafs pulling the goalie in favour of an extra skater in the waning moments of Game 1, Barenson huddled with the other Red Wings to devise a game plan for an important defensive-zone draw.
“Old-time hockey. I’m going to tie up the centreman, and Jiri is going to come in and get the puck, and then we’re going to wheel it around or chip it out the short side. So we had it figured out,” Berenson explained. “My head was into it. I’ve been doing this every day as a coach. Scotty (Bowman) put me out there. He knew I could figure it out and not screw it up.”
Marsh was blown away by Berenson’s tactics.
“The last face-off was hugely impressive. He was so strong on the puck that our guy couldn’t win the draw. He just clamped right down,” said the Leafs’ Brad Marsh. “As the minutes clicked by, the intensity level rose. We all still want to win the game.”
So do the last two seconds.
The Leafs’ Bryan McCabe tied the second game at five with just a pair of seconds remaining in regulation, triggering fireworks (literally) and forcing a crowd-pleasing shootout.
“We all wanted to play five minutes of overtime, but the people doing the TV said we had to end it with a shootout,” said Brendan Shanahan. Scotty called my name but I could hear all the fans chanting ‘Stevie!’ So I turned to [Yzerman] and said, ‘You get out here.’ And he said, ‘No way!’”
Recent retiree Tomas Holmstrom had the best move of the skills competition, beating Curtis Joseph with a roofed backhand.
There is a benefit to being part of the alumni’s B squad.
“We’ll wish the guys luck and drink all the beer before they get back,” quipped Marsh, who played in the earlier game.
Mike Palmateer never updated his gear.
The Leafs goaltender, who celebrates his 60th birthday in January, played the first period of Game 2 in his vintage brown pads and memorable blue-and-white mask from the late ’70s.
“In a game such as this when you’re playing against other alumni, it’s a pretty safe environment out there. I didn’t wear it in Philadelphia when I played in the Winter Classic there, and I chose not to wear it today.”
The ice was fantastic.
Berenson, who has coached his Wolverines through four outdoor games, said the ice at Comerica was the best fresh-air surface he’s ever played in. And fast.
“I thought the ice was great,” agreed the Leafs’ Tom Fergus. “It’s got a little different feel to it when it’s outdoors. It actually feels harder and slipperier.”
One problem with alumni games: two players can wear the same number.
This can lead to some confusion on scoring plays. We overheard this from the game’s official scorers: “Toronto had two 15s on the ice! I almost had 9 from 15 and 15.”
Peter Ing’s children got to see him play.
The former Leafs goaltender not only got to don the blue and white before his children for the first time, the Winter Classic also afforded him a chance to catch up with his boarders when he played junior across the bridge for the OHL’s Windsor Spitfires back in the late ’80s.
“The cold didn’t play a factor,” said Ing, returning to the crease after 17 years. “I personally loved it when you started to see the snow come down. It was like your childhood.”