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College Daze

by Zack Crawford / Detroit Red Wings
Then in his first year as Red Wings' coach, Jacques Demers challenged the legality of Leafs forward Bill Root's stick. (Photo by Getty Images)
When the Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs face-off at the University of Michigan’s Michigan Stadium – in the largest stadium in the Western Hemisphere – on New Year’s Day, it won’t be the first time that the two NHL clubs have played in the college town.

The Original Six teams met less than a mile from the Big House in a preseason game at Yost Ice Arena prior to the start of the 1986-87 season.

It was a strange game for many reasons other than the location. Ill-equipped to handle a night of uncharacteristic late-September heat, Yost was filled with a constant fog that caused at least a dozen stoppages throughout the game. The fog and poor ice conditions only served to exacerbate tensions between the two teams, who had faced each other the night before at Maple Leaf Gardens.

The contest at Yost eventually resulted in a 4-4 overtime draw.

Jim Devellano, the Wings’ senior vice president, offered an explanation as to why the teams met in an unprecedented match on the college campus.

Back then, Devellano was vice president and general manager, who had been undergoing a restructuring since owner Mike Ilitch had purchased the team in 1982. Devellano’s job under the new ownership was not just to rebuild the team’s roster, but also to revitalize the region’s interest in a franchise that had only made it to the playoffs twice between 1966 and 1983.

“The reasoning behind it, back then, we couldn’t sell preseason games in Detroit,” Devellano said. “We could not sell preseason games then; even our regular-season games were not sold out. It wasn’t Hockeytown then, trust me. So I had to go to smaller venues and what I tried to do is play games in places where I thought we might develop some fans.”

To put the dismal ticket sales of that era in perspective, consider that even bringing The Great One to Detroit for a preseason game in the early ’80s filled little more than a tenth of the stands at The Joe.

“Around about ’84, ’85, I brought Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers in for a preseason game,” Devellano said. “I paid the Oilers a lot of money because Gretzky was going to play and I sold 2,300 tickets at Joe Louis Arena.”

Coming off a 17-57-6 season the season before, it was up to Devellano to do things a little differently to spark some new interest in the team at the beginning of the 1987 season. Playing preseason games at rinks other than The Joe seemed like one way to generate buzz for the team.

“It was done for two purposes,” he said. “We had a hard time selling tickets at The Joe for preseason games and I was also trying to develop fans in our outer markets.”

The eight-game exhibition season also saw the Wings play intrastate games at the IMA Arena in Flint, McMorran Arena in Port Huron, Wings Stadium in Kalamazoo and Michigan Tech University in Houghton.

In an article published in the Michigan Daily, UM student sports writer Scott Miller reported on the Yost Arena game. A regular in Yost’s press box, he remembers the game conditions being an anomaly for Yost, which was built in 1923 and converted into an ice arena 50 years later.

“I think it was unseasonably warm,” Miller said. “And so you had all this condensation, you could barely see from one end of the ice to the other, and they had fans in there
because they were trying to spread the air and it was just a really weird feel to it.”

Having attended most of the UM home games during his time at the school, Miller called the Detroit-Toronto game “an exception.”
Doug Shedden assisted on Darren Veitch's game-tying goal on the Red Wings power-play goal against the Maple Leafs at Yost Arena.

“I was sitting up in the press box and I could barely see portions of the ice,” he recalled. “The players all of a sudden would jump out of a cloud almost; it was just a really bizarre game. In my four years I went to almost every hockey game and never saw anything like that.”

An article from the following day’s Toronto Star mentioned other oddities from the game, including troubles with the game clock and a dysfunctional goal light that resulted in the goal judge having to wave a white handkerchief to signal a goal.

To top it all off, with fewer than three minutes remaining in the game, first-year Wings coach Jacques Demers asked for a measurement of the stick of Leafs defenseman Bill Root.

After the referees determined that the stick had an illegal curve and sent Root to the penalty box, Wings defenseman Darren Veitch scored the tying goal.

Demers’ challenge of the stick’s legality incited Leaf’s coach John Brophy to some disparaging comments after the game, saying of his counterpart, “I guess when you’re making $250,000 a year you have to prove how smart you are. That call is going to hurt him more than he thinks.”

In other circumstances, such squabbling between two teams and two coaches might be downplayed as “just part of the game,” but when you look at the penalty statistics the Michigan Daily reported from that September night, it’s clear that there was some deeply-rooted hatred between those two teams: Miller wrote that 50 penalties were assigned for a total of 177 penalty minutes.

It’s unlikely that the Big House will see similar statistics when the two teams return to the University of Michigan’s campus for next year’s Winter Classic matchup? Who knows, maybe there’s just something in the air – and in the fog – in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Red Wings managing editor Bill Roose contributed to this story.

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