After months of waiting, the big day in Ann Arbor, Mich., is almost here. On Wednesday morning the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs will face off in the 2014 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic (1 p.m. ET, NBC, CBC, RDS), and it should be an amazing scene in an amazing building.
When it comes to outdoor games, of course the biggest concern is almost always going to be the weather. Sometimes that can affect the game like the rain did in Pittsburgh three years ago and it will certainly impact players, but personally, that's what I love about games like this. I like the fact that it's not going to be perfect. I like the fact that there might be snow, and that you'll see guys with cold breath coming out of their mouths and steam coming off their heads. Those are the images that make the event. It's not perfect. It's not controllable. That's what makes this so exciting compared to a regular-season NHL game.
Every building in the League is exactly the same now. They all hold 20,000 people, they're all bright, they all have the same-sized rink and they all have good ice. When the Leafs and Wings take the ice at Michigan Stadium, it won't be controllable and there will be elements the players aren't used to. That's what makes it so great.
As of now, weather reports are indicating there is a good chance of snow in Ann Arbor on New Year's Day. That will have a significant impact on which team gets the advantage and I would definitely think of the two teams, Toronto is hoping for a snowstorm. Detroit will be hoping for a beautiful day, but Toronto wants a blizzard. The big defense of Toronto would become more involved and the Maple Leafs wouldn't have to be as worried about the skilled forwards Detroit has.
Obviously, players like Pavel Datsyuk don't care what kind of weather it is, and I would expect him to have a good game, but it certainly affects guys that play a skill game. Snow will affect Detroit's puck movement. It will affect the Red Wings' speed. A number of important players for Detroit have nagging injuries and the cold could affect their effectiveness as well. There is no question in my mind that it will favor the Maple Leafs if ice conditions are bad.
The one thing I wouldn't expect the weather to really impact, at least not negatively, is the crowd. I'm going to be interested to see what the split is going to be, whether it will be 55,000 Detroit fans and 55,000 Toronto fans. This is technically a home game for the Red Wings, but Toronto isn't far, and remember, this is the first time a Canadian team has gotten to play in the Winter Classic. I expect Leafs fans to come out in full force and create a raucous atmosphere regardless of the weather. The weather won't stop the building from having energy. I loved the atmosphere in Pittsburgh when it was raining and I loved the atmosphere in Boston when it was a crisp, clear, cold day at Fenway Park.
I would expect the players to take a look around during warm-ups, to feel the energy and say, "Wow, this is something." But I don't think one team will get an edge from it. Detroit's players have been in enough big playoff games and Toronto plays in front of a huge crowd every night. Once the puck drops, just like a playoff game or a game in the Stanley Cup Final, the players will forget the crowd and focus on the game. We won't have a case of nerves.
All that said, regardless of the weather and regardless of the winner, it will be a great event for everyone there and everyone watching. The game will be fun, and visually a building holding a crowd that size should make the whole thing stunning. It'll be great to see the blue and the red in the crowd.
Obviously, this being Michigan Stadium, that stadium is used to seeing blue. Red, even though it's the home team, will be the unusual one. We'll see if blue continues to be the lucky color at the Big House.
We'll get our answer on Jan. 1.