DETROIT -- The fans lined up around the block, shivering and decked out in red and white, at least three hours before the main event began.
The scene was Clark Park on the West side of the Motor City, where an outdoor ice rink was prepared carefully all week long by Joe Louis Arena's ice guru, Al Sobotka -- whose work prepared the sheet for a special Detroit Red Wings practice on Saturday afternoon – which was the first time in eight decades the team held an outdoor practice in its own city.
"It was excellent," Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said. "I thought it was really good for the crowd. Kids seemed to have fun. For players it was fun, it was bright, it was good."
The only admission "cost" for the estimated 2,000-plus fans who showed up was a charitable donation. The Red Wings wound up collecting food items, nearly $2,000 worth for the Clark Park Coalition that runs the rink and used hockey equipment for Clark Park and Detroit Hockey Association's youth programs.
"I think everyone enjoyed it. It was a great little rink and the coolest fans, and the weather was nice. I think everyone enjoyed it. I'm assuming that it's probably going to be a staple around here for years to come. It was a lot of fun." --Danny Cleary
The event was held in conjunction with USA Hockey's "Hockey Weekend Across America" initiative that spotlights the sport in the U.S., as well as the Wings' "Hockeytown Thanks" effort. The weather also cooperated.
It didn't rain and the temperature hovered in the low 30s, even though there were some gusts of wind that made it feel much colder. Also, the sun would peek out from behind the gray skies every so often to provide a little warmth and a challenge to the Red Wings' vision.
"It was a little tough to see at the start of it, but once you got used to it, it was nice," Red Wings forward Valtteri Filppula said afterward. "The glare, at least for me, made it tough to see at first. [But] I enjoyed it. It was good. It'd been awhile since we skated on the ice outside like that, so it was a good thing."
It'd actually been a little more than two years since the Wings were last outside – back in 2008-09, when they played the Chicago Blackhawks in the annual Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic at Wrigley Field. Detroit will host the 2013 Winter Classic and inaugural "Hockeytown Winter Festival" next season, so Saturday's open-air skate was a little bit of a precursor to what could be like.
The 2013 Winter Classic will be held at the University of Michigan's football stadium on New Year's Day, while a host of other hockey events – including the NHL Alumni Showdown – will take place over a two-week period at an outdoor rink placed inside Detroit's Comerica Park.
"You know what? It's Michigan," said Red Wings goalie Joey MacDonald, who along with Ty Conklin did the goaltending honors for Saturday's practice. "You never know what you're going to get … what kind of weather. It's good to get a little taste of that and at least give guys a heads up to see what they're in for [at the Winter Classic]."
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The Wings arrived via a tour bus that had a four-car police escort with it, after strapping on most of their equipment at Joe Louis Arena first. They walked off the bus and through a line of fans into the rink's skate rental office "locker room" to lace up their skates. Fans snapped pictures and took video, as the Wings tried to maintain as much of a business-as-usual attitude.
The only Red Wings who didn't participate were goalie Jimmy Howard (broken finger), Pavel Datsyuk (sore throat) and Patrick Eaves (concussion symptoms) – who all did on-ice work back at Joe Louis Arena. The other Wings were at Clark Park enjoying the frosty winter air in front of fans packing the bleachers just to watch the Wings run through their drills while getting ready to face the San Jose Sharks on Sunday.
"The weather was good, a little windy," said Detroit captain Nicklas Lidstrom, who participated and had no problems skating after taking a shot off the inside of his left ankle during Friday night's 2-1 victory against the Nashville Predators. "It was hard going the one way, but I enjoyed it. It was fun. The sun when we first stepped on the ice … was very bright from sitting in the locker room. But once you got used to it, even for the goalies, I think it was fine."
Well, fine for at least one of the goalies that is.
MacDonald's end of the rink was probably better suited to stop pucks than Conklin's, which faced right into the glare of the sun.
"I had the good end," said MacDonald, who will start for the seventh straight game on Sunday against San Jose, still filling in for Howard. "Conks had the end where the sun was shining in his eyes and it was kind of tough. He picked that end and was like ‘Ahh!" [The sun was] blaring in his eyes. The wind was more coming from my end, but he couldn't see … squinting the whole time."
Otherwise, the Wings couldn't have asked for much better of a day to take hockey out to the park, which was located just a few minutes from Joe Louis Arena and rests in the shadows of the Ambassador Bridge linking the U.S. and Canada.
Fans were able to line the boards along the partitions, while Red Wings players rattled shots off the glass in front of them. A few stray pucks even sailed over the glass and hit the makeshift locker room building – sending kids scrambling for puck recovery missions.
"Practice was awesome," said Red Wings forward Danny Cleary, who's aiming to return to action from a knee issue on Tuesday in Chicago. "I think everyone enjoyed it. It was a great little rink and the coolest fans, and the weather was nice. I think everyone enjoyed it. I'm assuming that it's probably going to be a staple around here for years to come. It was a lot of fun."
As Babcock pointed out, however, Clark Park has an ancient model zamboni machine and will probably need a new one if they want to keep the ice rink going into the future. Zambonis aren't exactly cheap, costing more than six figures usually, and the park isn't run by the city of Detroit -- depending on volunteers to keep it up.
"You got to find a way to raise enough money to get them a new Zamboni and get it paid for first," Babcock said. "It's a fantasy trip we're on to think this facility is going to stay open. It's got to be funded. So, let's find a way. I'm not kidding around. It's something we should get behind and we should make sure it stays. It's a good facility. It needs a Zamboni. It needs enough funding to look after. It can be there for the community, but if you let it go we're never getting it back."