ANN ARBOR, Mich.—James van Riemsdyk marched into the locker room at Michigan Stadium with purpose and a different look than his Toronto Maple Leafs teammates. He appeared uncomfortable and called out for assistance from a teammate.
He needed Phil Kessel, who was behind a black curtain in a cordoned-off section of the locker room and done with his media availability. The confused Kessel emerged in a snug T-shirt and spandex shorts holding a half-eaten slice of pizza. He was a sight to behold, wondering what van Riemsdyk was yelling about.
Van Riemsdyk was still in his full equipment and uniform about 30 minutes after the Leafs’ 3-2 shootout victory against the Detroit Red Wings in the 2014 Winter Classic. Only, he was wearing a Team USA jersey on top of his Maple Leafs hockey pants. He wanted to try on Kessel’s Olympic jersey, as his own was too big, but Kessel was somewhere between indifferent and annoyed about the request.
Kessel offered a vacant stare, took a bite of his pizza, shrugged and mumbled something as he disappeared behind the curtain.
Winning an outdoor game and being named to the U.S. Olympic team has never seemed so wonderful.
It was a unique ending to a unique day at the Winter Classic, which overcame ghastly weather conditions and was played in front of 105,491 fans, the most to ever attend a hockey game. The ice required shoveling several times per period, which helped about as much as running a vacuum cleaner on a beach, and the intense wind caused complications as well.
The snow delayed fans and players alike from getting to the stadium, but it had no effect on what was a special day.
“I made sure I looked around as much as I could, especially during the anthem and took it all in,” Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf said. “It was an experience of a lifetime for me.”
Snow fell throughout the entire game, but it didn’t make for a magical setting as it did during the 2008 Winter Classic between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Buffalo Sabres. The game was sloppy and disjointed, as the snow wreaked havoc with any attempt to pass the puck.
The temperature was 13 degrees at the start of the game, the coldest ever for a Winter Classic, but the Red Wings managed to run into a hot goaltender.
Well, not your typical hot goaltender.
Jonathan Bernier wore a toque on top of his mask, a tactic that other goaltenders have employed in frigid outdoor conditions. But he went the extra mile for warmth, sticking his hand down the back of his pants whenever he could.
“My blocker hand, I really had to work to keep it warm,” Bernier said. “The trainer would give me hot packs and I would put them in my pants and my hand as well, trying to keep it warm.”
It certainly was a come-from-behind win for the Leafs.
“You really don’t know what to expect,” Leafs center Jay McClement said. “Obviously the snow put a little wrinkle in things. It didn’t seem to let up. Yesterday (at practice) it was a lot easier out there. But there’s nothing you can do about that. I think it added to the whole experience.”
The game was played in Michigan, but there appeared to be an even split between Leafs blue and Wings red throughout The Big House.
"It was awesome," said Tyler Bozak, who scored the winner in the shootout. "I didn't really know what to expect, how many people are going to be there. And it's pretty cool to see the amount of both teams' fans. And I know a lot of us have family members and friends in town, so there's a special moment for sure."
“It was funny,” McClement said of the crowd's reaction to exciting moments. “It was a little bit delayed. We had a couple chances there where we already jumped up and it was a little bit delayed when you hear the crowd. It was awesome.”
Joffrey Lupul said the first thing he saw as he emerged from the tunnel on his walk to the ice was a sign that read, “Today Is History.”
“I was just trying to enjoy the moment,” he said. “The crowd was going crazy and it’s snowing and I just tried to be in the moment as much as possible. We were watching the fans a little bit and it seemed like they were having a good time. It was cold on the bench, so I can’t imagine what it was like up there.
“Everyone’s hands and feet were a little bit cold. But other than that, it wasn’t too bad. It’s just one game, a special day for the fans. If we have to be cold for a while, that’s all right.”
This was the second Winter Classic for Red Wings coach Mike Babcock. He was behind the bench when his team beat the Blackhawks, 6-4, at Wrigley Field in Chicago in 2009. His team came out on the short end this time, but it didn’t do much to put a damper on his experience.
“Game aside, as a coach, I was thrilled with the opportunity to participate, to have your family here, to have so many fans,” he said. “It wasn't just today. Great week for hockey. I thought the league did an unbelievable job with the stuff at Comerica Park leading up to it and this event.”
If six Winter Classics have taught us anything, it’s to expect the unexpected. This year’s installment wasn’t the most aesthetically pleasing game, but it delivered one-of-a-kind memories from start to finish.