ANN ARBOR, Mich. – The first real surge of excitement came when the bus got within a couple kilometres of The Big House and the Toronto Maple Leafs started seeing all of the blue-and-white sweaters tailgating in parking lots, driveways, parks … and basically anywhere else they could find.
“It was pretty wild – it took us a long time to get here,” said Leafs centre Jay McClement. “People were pretty set up out there with tents and barbeques. It’s pretty amazing.”
It was only the tip of the iceberg. The feeling when the players walked into the 87-year-old stadium in front of more than 100,000 fans was truly something special. The biggest and best Winter Classic of them all lived up to its advanced billing on Wednesday and it simply wouldn’t have been possible without the hordes of Leafs fans that braved long border lines and snowy roads to stand around in the cold and watch a very long hockey game.
It was tremendous.
That the Leafs went on to grind out a 3-2 shootout victory over the division-rival Detroit Red Wings – leapfrogging them in the standings – offered a small reward for the dedication and determination shown by their loyal supporters. At least for one afternoon.
The scene also provided a reminder about the sheer size of the hopes and expectations that this fanbase continues to carry despite the fact that the team’s championship drought is creeping close to 50 years. We saw it with the thousands who packed Maple Leaf Square to watch games on TV during last year’s playoffs and then had it taken to another level during the NHL's signature event.
No wonder the NHL is eyeing Toronto as a potential destination for this game in the future and will also likely bring the draft and all-star game to the city as part of the team’s centennial celebrations. Ideally, the Leafs performance will be on the uptick over that period as well.
One of the main messages Randy Carlyle has delivered since taking over as coach is the need to restore some pride to the organization. He dusted that off once again after watching Jonathan Bernier stop 41 shots and Tyler Bozak score the shootout winner along with a goal in regulation on Wednesday.
It clearly remains a work in progress.
“The passion that our market has demonstrated just proves to the rest of the hockey world that the value is there,” said Carlyle. “And if you see the season tickets list and the number of years that people have held their season tickets and (how much they’re) cherished and passed on from family to family, you start to get a better understanding of it.”
More than anything else, these outdoor games are about the fans. The most striking thing about this Winter Classic was how many people were wearing the sweaters of both teams – it had to be at least 80 per cent in total – and they were divided in a way that left half the stadium mostly in red and the other half almost completely in blue. What a scene.
The Leafs supporters seemed to make even more noise than their counterparts, especially when James van Riemsdyk batted a puck out of midair to tie the game 1-1 with less than a minute to play in the second period. That gave Toronto some life after a tepid opening period by both teams while they adjusted to playing outside as snow fell.
The overall pace went to an even higher level in the third period and overtime and it hardly looked like any of the fans left their seats as a result.
“I think it created an atmosphere that made it more than just a game,” said Leafs general manager Dave Nonis. “I think both teams raised their level of play – I know our team did. I think that’s the hardest we’ve competed for a long time.
“When you look at over 100,000 people in the building it’s impossible not to play harder.”
Even Red Wings veteran Daniel Alfredsson, who was booed soundly by the Leafs supporters like usual, applauded the number of Canadians who made their way to the stadium. The 41-year-old took time to look around during breaks in play when workers came out to shovel the ice surface and could hardly believe his eyes.
“I knew they were going to invade Ann Arbor pretty hard,” Alfredsson said. “They’re passionate hockey fans there as well. It was pretty cool up the stands, seeing the red (for us) and the blue for the Leafs. It was an incredible atmosphere.”
It clearly moved the Leafs as well.
Winger Joffrey Lupul said that walking out to the field was a “moment we’ll all remember forever” while defenceman Dion Phaneuf basically found himself lost for words. However, the big smile on the captain’s face said more than enough anyway.
“Words can’t describe the feeling from when both anthems were going and the building was just ... so much energy,” said Phaneuf.
You couldn’t help but get the feeling that the entire experience might end up propelling the Leafs forward as they enter the second half. The win gave the team three in a row for the first time since October and came with a little extra motivation given that it was against one of the opponents they’ll be battling for playoff position.
Should they get back there again this spring, it will energize the fanbase even more – assuming that’s even possible. As the Winter Classic demonstrated, the passion of the people invested in this team runs awfully deep.