By Greg Garno, Daily Sports Editor
Published January 1, 2014
It looked like a game of pond hockey between friends in Michigan, but it was far, far from it.
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Beneath the snow and gusts of wind, the National Hockey League’s Winter Classic between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings at Michigan Stadium set an unofficial record for attendance at a hockey game with 105,491 fans. The ultimate say will come from Guinness World Records in the near future.
The outdoor hockey game — the first of five this year — did top the NHL record for attendance, beating the existing mark of 71,217 that was set at the 2008 Winter Classic at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo. The largest crowd at any hockey game was set in 2010 at the Big Chill when 104,173 people watched Michigan battle Michigan State.
The Maple Leafs won 3-2 in a shootout win, but the Winter Classic will be remembered for more than just the contest on the ice.
“I thought it was a spectacular venue,” said Detroit coach Mike Babcock. “Great, great crowd for both teams, really good hockey game.”
Robert Ward, one of the many ushers who was required to work the Winter Classic, arrived at nine in the morning to man his usual post at section 18. Ward has been working at Michigan Stadium for 35 years, where he’s seen the Michigan football team play under the lights twice, face Ohio State every other year, and he was even witness to the Big Chill.
There was little that was different for Ward, who said the atmosphere felt similar to a normal Michigan football game.
“I would say, by and large, it’s colder,” Ward said. “A little more snow then normal.”
Temperatures were as cold as 12 degrees outside, but with windchill, it dipped to below zero. Ward wasn’t fazed by the cold, though, wearing five layers and using hand warmers to get through the day.
Fans travelled from all over the continent, and Ward found time to chat with the swarms of fans who filed into the stadium. People came from as far as Alberta, Canada, bringing with them what NHL officials estimate could amount to $15 million in added revenue.
“It’s just been great,” Ward said.
Michael Farris, a concessions vendor, is new to Michigan Stadium. Like Farris, the sale of beer was new to the Big House as well.
The NHL pushed for a bill in the Michigan House of Representatives and Senate to authorize a temporary 30-day liquor license for the Winter Classic. The sale of alcohol is normally banned at Michigan Stadium.
The below-freezing temperatures didn’t deter fans from purchasing the beverages, and Farris noted he sold an entire carrier of beer within an hour starting at 10 a.m.
“The experience has been fun,” Farris said. “People are already buying, so I’m staying busy.”
There’s a waiting list to purchase season tickets for the Maple Leafs, so for many fans, the opportunity to watch their team on an international stage was too big to pass up.
Peter Ostojic came with his wife from St. Thomas, Ontario — nearly three hours away from Ann Arbor. Ostojic was one of thousands of fans to travel from Ontario to watch the game, and many made an even longer trek than the five-hour drive from Toronto.
The snowy conditions and long commute meant little to Ostojic, who arrived hours early to the stadium to take in the scene.
“It’s awesome,” Ostojic said. “I’ve been a fan since I was five years old.”
But this isn’t the first trip to Michigan Stadium for Mr. Ostojic, who watched Michigan play Ohio State nearly ten years ago.
Like the Ostojics, fellow Canadian Andrea Masciotra crossed the border through the slick road conditions to watch her team play. A student at York University in Toronto from Windsor, Ontario, Masciotra came down with family and friends — a trip she’s been anticipating for two years.
Masciotra is one of a small percentage of fans who bought tickets in 2011 when the Winter Classic was scheduled to come to Ann Arbor, but it was then cancelled due to the NHL lockout that lasted nearly half the season.
Sitting in some of the upper rows, Masciotra took several pictures and flaunted her traditional white-hair wig with blue face paint.
“I love it, it’s perfect today,” she said. “The snowflakes are coming down, you couldn’t ask for anything better.”
Though most people came to Ann Arbor from out of the city, some Michigan students broke away from their normal commute to Yost Ice Arena to catch the outdoor game.
Kinesiology senior Nicola Berry and Engineering senior Mark Kolanowski, proud members of the Michigan hockey student section, the Children of Yost, attended the game together.
For Berry, it marked the third outdoor hockey game she has experienced after she attended the Great Lakes Invitational at Comerica Park in Detroit. Kolanowski, a former hockey player, has played outside before, but for the pair, the cold — regardless of how annoying or uncomfortable — was not enough to deter them.
“I had about five layers on, snow boots, hand and foot warmers and had a hot chocolate during one of the intermissions — and I still froze,” Berry said. “It was worth it, though, and I'd be crazy enough to do it again.”
Added Kolanowski: “I think it was absolutely worth it to experience the game. I was much colder during this year's Indiana football game than today's hockey game.”
Both Berry and Kolanowski have attended football games before at Michigan Stadium, but Wednesday was strange not so much for the Canadian fans that surrounded them but rather the alcohol being consumed around them.
“It was a bit odd to see it out in the open as opposed to in flasks or little bottles being passed around the student section,” Kolanowski said.