ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Toronto native Neil McNeil picked up his son at a New Year's Eve party at 2:30 Wednesday morning and immediately hit the road to make the roughly five-hour drive to Michigan Stadium, anxiously awaiting the 2014 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic to watch their Toronto Maple Leafs face the Detroit Red Wings.
Little did McNeil know when he secured his tickets that the scene would be as picturesque as it was Wednesday morning, between the live music and the fan experience at Spectator Plaza, along with a light snowfall. It truly is a winter wonderland.
McNeil, who dressed appropriately and topped his outfit with a referee's bathrobe, is spending the morning simply absorbing it all. The Spectator Plaza footprint included beer and food vendors, live music and various hockey-related games.
"This is perfect," said McNeil, who works for a couple of hockey rinks in Toronto. "We were prepared for the worst, but walking around today, it's very comfortable. If this is the worst it gets, it's going to be an amazing day. Little bit of flurries, but not enough to shovel the ice too much. It really lends to the ambience. We've heard about games in the past where they were worried about the ice being soft, [but] that won't be the case today."
McNeil said he often visits the United States to attend Buffalo Bills games and was prepared for a lengthy stop at the border Wednesday morning. But he was pleased to arrive in Ann Arbor early and take in all the festivities before the drop of the puck.
"We thought there'd be a lot of traffic and were worried about the border being really busy," McNeil said. "We go across the border for NFL games in Buffalo all the time, and we figured it'd be worse here, but there was no traffic at the border. We were in fairly early. We got a good parking spot and we've been able to enjoy the area. It's been great.
"It's almost sacrilegious because I've been to Ohio State's building four or five times. This is the first time I've been to the Big House."
This won't be the first experience at Michigan Stadium for Ann Arbor resident Jeff Lamb, but the Michigan Law School alum couldn't wait to drive down the street Wednesday with his wife and two young daughters for this rare event.
"This is so exciting," Lamb said. "It's great weather. It's cold. I watched the alumni game on television [Tuesday], and it was so exciting to see the old players. I'm a big Red Wings fan and was thrilled with the reception Sergei Fedorov got from the fans and Brendan Shanahan, obviously. It's just so exciting to come out here on New Year's Day and be a part of this. The excitement and the energy … what a great event. I'm so happy the NHL was able to do this. It's really exciting.
"My older daughter asked if she could go to the fan experience on the Maple Leafs' side and I said, 'You sure can,'" said Lamb, who works in downtown Detroit. "But then my wife said, 'You better find a different place to go home.' We're trying to bring them up right."
Follow Brian Compton on Twitter: @BComptonNHL
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