By Alejandro Zúñiga, Daily Sports Editor
Published January 1, 2014
Since its dedication in 1927, Michigan Stadium has been host to innumerable unforgettable events, moments so special that a handful of words alone can conjure their memories: the 1969 Ohio State game, for instance, Wangler to Carter in 1979, “The Catch” and “Hello Heisman” in 1991 or Tshimanga Biakabutuka in 1995.
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Wednesday afternoon, the Big House added another tally to that growing list when the National Hockey League’s Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs — two members of the league’s Original Six — met there for the Winter Classic.
The game itself mattered, of course, and the Maple Leafs ultimately won, 3-2, in a thriller decided by a shootout. But the event was a celebration, a mix of hockey culture with the fanfare and festivities of football.
Welcoming the largest crowd in NHL history was largely a given — the previous record was 71,217, and Michigan Stadium officially seats 109,901. The Big House also held the mark for attendance at any hockey game with 104,073, set at the Big Chill in 2010.
Both records fell Wednesday, though the announced attendance of 105,491 will have to be verified by Guinness World Records in the coming weeks.
“To me, today was a home run for hockey,” said Detroit coach Mike Babcock.
For the first time ever, the home team at the Big House wore red and the visitors blue. There were plenty of visitors — both the Canadian and American national anthems were met with tremendous roars — and the divided crowd spent the game alternating between chants of “let’s go Red Wings” and “go Leafs go.”
Fireworks shot into the grey sky as the teams stepped onto the ice, and concerts entertained fans during the pregame ceremonies and intermissions as the temperature fell.
“The venue was a raucous type of atmosphere,” said Toronto coach Randy Carlyle. “It brought back a lot of memories from a childhood of playing outside.”
The game even featured a homecoming of sorts as center Luke Glendening — who captained the Michigan hockey team in 2010-11 and 2011-12 — dressed for the Red Wings after being recalled from the Grand Rapids Griffins late Tuesday night. The rookie finished with two shots on goal.
And Mother Nature played her part, coating Ann Arbor with snow that kept falling until the game ended and blasting it with a wind that whipped through the city’s narrow streets. A cleaning crew armed with shovels worked tirelessly to clear the ice at Michigan Stadium to no avail; the precipitation didn’t relent and blanketed the playing surface.
By the second period, windchill had dipped to below zero degrees.
“It was a little chilly out there,” Carlyle joked.
Hits rattled snow off the boards. Players slipped and fell and misplayed pucks. Toronto goaltender Jonathan Bernier wore a hat over his mask to keep warm. But the crowd, one that erupted at various points of the back-and-forth contest, came early and stayed late to watch the NHL’s largest hockey game.
After it ended, after the last notes of “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” had faded into the night and the final firework had pierced the darkening sky, Babcock trudged into the Michigan Stadium tunnel to the locker room, the brim of his hat loaded with snow. He never talks to his team after a loss, but Wednesday he made an exception.
“ ‘Be thankful for the experience, remember the experience,’ ” Babcock told them. “Life is about moments. You remember moments — you don’t remember everything.”