NHL set to brave elements again for Winter Classic
The forecast for Michigan Stadium calls for temperatures in the teens, wind chills in the single digits, and a sprinkling of snow – the perfect wintry mix for 100,000 fans to feel a big chill at the Big House.
In short, hockey weather fit for the traditional Winter Classic.
”Move fast,” Detroit center Pavel Datsyuk said, ”or you’ll be frozen.”
For the NHL, the frigid elements are part of the DNA of the sport, old-school hockey for scores of players who grew up learning the game on frozen ponds. For broadcast partner NBC, the images of snow coating the rink, the players’ breath, even fans bundled in their licensed hats and jackets – all in sparkling high-definition – are a viewership boon for a league counting on record ratings on Jan. 1.
”It’s going to be even better with a few snowflakes floating through the air to create a perfect backdrop for the greatest game on earth,” NBC Sports executive producer Sam Flood said.
The Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs have no complaints about wearing an extra layer or two for Wednesday’s signature event. Fans have steeled themselves to brave the cold, with Michigan Stadium expected to set an NHL attendance record, though they’ll surely welcome plopping down their commemorative seat cushions on jet-dried seats.
The wind, snow, and slush are all part of the deal for the Winter Classic, the NHL’s weeklong winter carnival, that’s been on a yearly tour from classic ballparks to super-sized football stadiums. The league has been pulling off global, outdoor, winter events for quite a few years now.
For the first time, the NFL will hold the Super Bowl in an outdoor, cold-weather venue, but the Winter Classic, which began in 2008, has been there, done that – and encountered many weather roadblocks along the way. There was a blizzard in Buffalo, rain in Pittsburgh, and even – get this – too much sun in Philadelphia. But the league, and its marquee day, has persevered to the point where there will be six outdoor games this season, including two in New York during Super Bowl week.
All the ingredients for a classic Classic are exactly what have some fans, players, and media concerned regarding a Feb. 2 Super Bowl at MetLife Stadium. The NFL ditched warm-weather cities and climate-controlled stadiums to stage its championship game in the cold and one of the largest media markets in the nation. What works for the NHL may not be a perfect match for the NFL.
”New York is a great city, it’s one of the best cities you could play in as far as the Super Bowl,” Packers tight end Andrew Quarless said. ”But yeah, as a player, you’d like to be in a dome or somewhere warm where you don’t have to worry about the weather.”
NHL players worry more about the drop pass then dropping temps in the cold.
”I think you know you expected it to be a lot colder than it actually was,” Chicago Blackhawks star Patrick Kane said. ”You’re worried about staying warm underneath your gear and once you start playing, your body temperature is just going to take over and you’re going to be warm. You don’t have to worry about it too much. There were guys actually taking off layers of clothing as the game went on.”
Kane and the Blackhawks played in the 2009 game against Detroit at Chicago’s Wrigley Field.
Snow, a sold-out football stadium and Sidney Crosby scoring the shootout winner highlighted the inaugural event in 2008 between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Buffalo Sabres at the NFL’s Ralph Wilson Stadium. In 2010, the Boston Bruins hosted the Flyers at Fenway Park. In 2011, the Penguins hosted the Washington Capitals at Heinz Field. The New York Rangers beat the Philadelphia Flyers in 2012 at Citizens Bank Park.
Conditions were near perfect for the first three Winter Classics in Buffalo, Chicago and Boston, with seasonal temperatures and, in Buffalo, plenty of snow. The game at Pittsburgh was switched from an afternoon start to 8 p.m. to avoid predicted rain. The rain drops and slick ice still hit.
”It was a great idea to get outside and play in front of a lot of people. You feel the energy. You feel the excitement,” Sabres goalie Ryan Miller said. ”It builds some hype and you get to have that kind of football moment where there’s a lead up, people talk about it a lot before you play the game and people kind of make an event out of it rather just showing up in time for the drop of the puck. They are showing up tailgating, having some fun and it really picks up the energy and makes people feel good about hockey.”
It makes fans want to stay home and watch, too. NBC Sports has produced five of the six most-watched NHL regular-season games in the past 38 years, topped by the 4.5 million viewers for the 2011 game (there was no 2013 game because of the lockout).
If NBC and the NHL hit the jackpot and the weather turns the game into a 3-hour scene straight out of a Christmas skate at Rockefeller Center, buzz on Twitter and other forms of social media could push even casual viewers toward their TV sets.
”I think the word will get out in a different way than it could have even in 2008, which is remarkable to think how recent that was,” Flood said. ”So we’re excited. We think (weather) is a big part of it. We just don’t need a blizzard because we’d like them to be able to make crisp passes, but at the same time have a little bit of that snow globe effect.”
For the whining out of some critics, the chilly Super Bowl still won’t measure to some of the NFL’s classic nailbiters – or, is it frostbiters – that helped put the league on the map.
The NFL last year listed its 10 coldest games, and, odds are, the first weekend at MetLife Stadium will seem like summer in Miami compared to the minus-6 degrees at Arrowhead Stadium for a Chiefs-Colts playoff game on Jan. 7, 1996. Or a wind chill of minus-59 degrees for the Jan. 10, 1982 AFC championship game between San Diego and Cincinnati.
Of course, no bone chiller has yet to top to the Ice Bowl, the 1967 NFL Championship Game between Dallas and Green Bay played on December 31, 1967 that clocked in at minus-13 degrees with a wind chill of minus-48.
The forecast that day had called for temperatures in the 20s.
”The operator said, `It’s 7:30 a.m. and 19-below,”’ former Cowboys linebacker Lee Roy Jordan told The AP in a 2003 interview. ”I got up out of bed, looked out the window and saw 40 other guys starting out in disbelief.”
Some Packers had trouble starting their cars and had to hitch a ride to the game. The doors at the Cowboys’ hotel were frozen shut and had to be kicked in.
When the grounds crew rolled up the tarpaulin, a layer of condensation had formed underneath and, with 40 mph wind, the field promptly froze like an ice rink.
Bart Starr, the Packers’ quarterback during the Ice Bowl game, said it’s a mental adjustment to a cold game
”I don’t want this to sound trite, because it’s not – it’s attitude,” Starr said in 2008. ”It’s a mental thing and you, an individual, regardless of what’s coached to you, you have to put it out of your mind and focus on what the purpose and what your objectives are.
”You have to push it away.”
The Seattle Seahawks sure seemed cozy in chilly New York when they thumped the New York Giants 23-0 earlier Dec. 15 at MetLife. Should they return to New Jersey this season, it would be for the Super Bowl.
”Playing in the snow is like one of my things that I’ve kind of always wanted to do a good amount,” Seahawks QB Russell Wilson said. ”I’ve played in some at Wisconsin, but it was more so practice. So we never really got to play in it.
”So I’m looking forward to the snow.”
AP Sports Writers Larry Lage in Detroit, Genaro C. Armas in Green Bay, Wis., Jay Cohen in Chicago, and freelance writer Nicholas Mendola in Buffalo, N.Y., contributed to this report.