On New Year's Day in Toronto, hockey’s past was honoured and its future starred at Exhibition Stadium. This is the view from inside the NHL's first outdoor game of 2017.

The day started with true shinny weather as the temperature was a gorgeous three degrees Celsius, a gift to the people in attendance. Hockey is Canada’s national pastime, so it made sense for the masses to gather on a holiday to celebrate the game. This contest wasn’t about Mike Babcock extending his win streak over his former club to five games. It wasn’t about one of the fiercest rivalries in pro sports. It was about men who play a kid’s game, playing it the way they did when they were children as grown adults act like children while they watch.

As The Tragically Hip blared loudly over the speakers, an assortment of Red Wings players assembled on the tarped field area around the ice, warming up their hip flexors and abductors. Some enjoyed a friendly game of keep-up. Others threw spirals for fun. Even though they weren’t yet playing for keeps, trash talk ensued.

“C’mon man!”

“You again!”

Both jabs thrown at American centre Dylan Larkin for one of his unforced errors.

At the 2014 Winter Classic in Detroit, the same two fan bases were split 50-50. Today, the sea of fans was distinctly blue. For the few dressed in red who made the trek into enemy territory, the Red Wings’ late-game comeback was extra sweet. “Hockeytown, USA all day!” one fan screamed after Anthony Mantha scored his second goal, with just 1.1 seconds left on the clock.

The response from one exasperated Maple Leafs fan: “Sit down and shut up Trump lover!” It sent the entire section into hysterics.

These two original six teams are rebuilding with youth, restoring hope that the glory years of the past may soon return. When I saw a girl who looked to be about Kendall Jenner’s age wearing a Dave Keon sweater, it became crystal clear that hockey’s history lives on.

The respect for the game’s history was evident when fans stood to honour the league’s top 100 players of the past. While fans saluted the players’ family members, the families saluted back — reciprocal respect.

If you saw fans leaving before the intermission, it wasn’t necessarily to beat the line to the concessions or the restroom. The stadium’s unique design made it necessary for both teams to walk through the concourse to get to their dressing rooms, so a line as thick as it was long formed with fans eager to greet their team. Most threw up their phones to capture the moment, a practice that would’ve undoubtedly seemed alien in 1917. The possibility of an online impression trumped that of a human interaction.

The kids were the ones who reached out to touch the stars. “Mommy, I got a high-five from all of them!” a young child informed his mother, after his knuckles brushed up against every glove that passed him by. As much as this showcase was for those who have vivid memories of the Maple Leafs’ glory in 1967, it was also about creating memories for the next generation of fans.

This year the Maple Leafs have played as many as nine rookies a night. With that type of youth there are bound to be growing pains. The scene seemed all too familiar when Toronto’s lead was blown late in the third period, prompting one young woman to scream, “Get it together!”

For the most part, though, Leafs fans seemed to understand. They’re babies, these Leafs. They’re still learning. And it was the youngest kids who stood the tallest under pressure – teenagers Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews, who were exceptional.

Auston Matthews was born in California and raised in Arizona, making this the coldest game he’s ever played in. But as the temperature dipped Matthews seemed to heat up, impressing his many fans every time he touched the puck. The dynamic rookie seemed destined to be the one to send these fans home happy.

When he scored Toronto’s fourth goal to make the score 4-1 in the third, the building was jumping. But it was Matthews’ overtime winner that solidified his greatness. “That’s why we f***ing drafted him!” a fan wearing a TML onesie told his friends as he spiked a Stella Artois can on the floor. It wasn’t his prettiest goal, but it didn’t matter.

The only player who earned a similar fan response as Matthews was No. 99. It seemed fitting that “The Great One” would be received as warmly as “The Next One.”

Honourable mention for biggest ovation went to Bryan Adams when he finished his three-song set in between the first and second period. Summer of ‘69 turned the cathedral for hockey into a college bar. Grown men screaming “Standing on your mother’s porch!” while dancing with the enthusiasm of Steve Urkel seemed oddly fitting.

The Centennial Classic was a snapshot of what 21st century professional sports can be at the best of times – a unifying, invigorating distraction.

Photo Credits

Charlie Lindsay