One month after the NHL unveiled the Winter Classic on New Year's Day 2008, Mike "Doc" Emrick, who called the game for NBC Sports, revisited the experience with Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Ryan Whitney. The Penguins defeated the Buffalo Sabres 2-1 in a shootout at Ralph Wilson Stadium, but Whitney fondly shared his emotions from before the game, when the teams came down the ramps and entered the stadium.
Fire was shot off, bagpipes played and there was the roar of 70,000 people. Whitney motioned toward teammate Colby Armstrong, ahead of him in line, and told him, "Take a look at this, Armie, and listen. This is a lifetime memory here."
The atmosphere at Heinz Field two years later still resonates with Pierre McGuire. A longtime League scout and assistant coach who won Stanley Cups with the Penguins in 1991 and '92, and current "Inside the Glass" analyst for NBC, McGuire wore his ice skates during the Jan. 1, 2011 telecast and after the first period approached Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby for an interview. Before heading to the locker room, Crosby told McGuire it was one of the coolest interviews he's ever done.
"I said, 'Yeah, we've done some good ones, but this one was really unbelievable,'" McGuire said. "You can actually feel the ice shaking. That's how much noise was reverberating around the ice rink at the time."
On New Year's Day, the game of hockey will be presented on a stage bigger, bolder and grander when roughly 110,000 fans are expected to pack Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Mich., for the 2014 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings. The game itself will be competitive with two Original Six teams each in contention for one of eight Stanley Cup Playoff berths in the Eastern Conference, but the aura will be unmistakable, one where romantic elements of snowfall, cold breath and hockey roots will interlace together as one.
"I have to think with close to 20-to-30,000 more people at a stadium that's perfect for hockey, and obviously for football, it's going to be an amazing opportunity to showcase how great these players are," McGuire said. "This has all the makings of really being one of the true classics of the NHL season."
During a Monday conference call to promote the game, Emrick often referenced with wonder a light snow falling on the sheet of ice that will be the centerpiece to a venue famous nationwide for its college football atmosphere. Analyst Eddie Olczyk simply plugged Maple Leafs-Red Wings as the "marquee game," one everybody wants to be a part of and proudly say they were there.
"Players, coaches, fans, broadcasters and I get the great privilege to be able to work with the great folks at NBC and be able to bring these games to everybody," Olczyk said. "I can't emphasize enough: This is the game that everybody wants to play in during the regular season and I'm looking forward to being a part of it."
New to Emrick, who has called hockey games for 40 years and counting, will be his perspective for the 2014 Winter Classic. For the first time in his broadcasting career, Emrick will be seated ice level with Olczyk and McGuire. NBC Sports executive producer Sam Flood explained the seating structure used in baseball stadiums that have hosted the Winter Classic would have blocked many seats and altered the viewing perspective.
"We think it should work out pretty well," Flood said. "Doc may need a little help occasionally when the guys are on the far end of the ice and the near boards, but that's why they created monitors, and HD is a nice gift."
Emrick is looking forward to calling a game he expects from his vantage point will be at a greater accelerated speed.
"This is going to be fascinating in terms of what we're going to be seeing, because we'll be able to see very clearly from the red line in, except when we have people going around us, like linesmen, and they pull up right near the blue line to make offsides calls," Emrick said. "That will be an interesting sidebar, but I think we can look around them. I think it's going to be fascinating because the speed of the game is going to be very quick at that level."
Flood is hoping that, short of a blizzard, Mother Nature will add her paintbrush to the picture. People were talking about the added element of snow to the 2008 game, and with the growth of social media, the goal is to see a lot of traffic pushed toward the NBC telecast on Wednesday, thanks to what Flood calls a "snow-globe effect."
The weather is expected to cooperate with the forecast a high of 19 degrees and a 60-percent chance of snow.
"In hockey, the success of the Winter Classic started in Buffalo because of that snow," Flood said. "I think that snow-globe effect is something that people started talking about immediately. The snow-globe could be in full effect come New Year's Day with 110-some-odd-thousand people around on a beautiful sheet of ice."
On that beautiful sheet, the Maple Leafs and Red Wings will be playing a pretty important hockey game approaching the midway point of the 2013-14 season. The teams are tied for the first wild card spot in the East with 45 points, five ahead of the Rangers and New Jersey Devils. The Red Wings have dealt with numerous injuries, but forward Henrik Zetterberg recently returned from a sprained MCL, and goalie Jimmy Howard is back from his own MCL sprain and could get the start Wednesday.
The Maple Leafs have earned points in five straight games and McGuire is looking forward to seeing their "young star power and quick-strike offense." The Leafs are the first team to represent Canada in the Winter Classic, but Olczyk doesn't believe there will be any additional pressure on a team expected to win every year playing in one of hockey's hotbeds.
"I think there's enough pressure when you're playing in Toronto and for the Maple Leafs, but I look at this on the big stage -- everybody wants to play in this game," Olczyk said. "I don't think there's any more pressure on the Leafs than any other team getting the opportunity, and the privilege really, to play this game on New Year's Day."
For Emrick, the privilege is extra special. He makes his home in St. Clair, Mich., 55 miles from Ann Arbor. Everyone around him is talking about the 2014 Winter Classic, when the Big House is expected to be one divided with loyalists from Detroit and Toronto.
The entire package suits Emrick perfectly.
"It means a lot to me only because it's one where I don't get on an aircraft and go through a metal detector," Emrick said. "I just drive down. Once in a while it's fun to have one of those home games, so that's exciting too. There isn't anything about this I don't like.
"I think anytime you bring it up to any one of the players, immediately there's a smile and a sense of excitement about coming out. I know those are somewhat clichés, but you can read it on their faces and you can get a sense that this is a day they will never forget. The reasons they're clichés is because they're true."
Follow Jon Lane on Twitter: @JonLaneNHL
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