It fell in swirling, mad, white flurries, creating the snow globe backdrop the NHL always pines for at these outdoor events.
It made for beautiful television. But it also made the snow shovellers the co-MVPs of the Winter Classic, with their forays up and down the ice every few minutes during stoppages changing the momentum of the game as much as any player on the ice.
The Big House was a mad house, for the players, the coaches and the 100,000 or so fans that braved it all in the stands – but they found a way to pull it off.
“I was watching them shovel it and you could see the piles by the time they were done there they were this high off the ice,” Toronto Maple Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf said, raising his hand waist high.
He was still wide-eyed with excitement, his lip bleeding from a high stick, after playing a key role in a 3-2 shootout win over the Detroit Red Wings, a game that will be remembered as the snowiest of hockey’s growing number of Snow Bowls.
This wasn’t attractive hockey in a literal sense, with players remarking afterward that the unshovelled snow was such a barrier to stickhandling they were skating like peewees – their heads down, watching the puck bobble and hop, their bodies exposed should an opponent come barrelling in as they would in any other game.
“It was tough to get your head up,” Leafs veteran Jay McClement said. “I’m surprised there weren’t some bigger hits out there – every time you looked down, the puck seemed to stay where it was so you had to keep it on your stick and couldn’t really push it ahead.”
On the Wings bench, head coach Mike Babcock – a veteran behind the bench in his second of these events who has learned to adapt on the fly – was watching and pleading with officials for an unscheduled shovel before one key power play.
And he turned to one of his stars, known as The Magic Man, and asked Pavel Datsyuk for a read on the situation. Their team had been peppering Leafs netminder Jonathan Bernier with shots but was trailing and failing to break through.
“He said ‘Well we’re being too careful with the puck,’ ” Babcock relayed. “But he said ‘We got to be because you’re scared to turn it over. There’s so much snow.’ ”
It was, in other words, unpredictable, unscripted chaos, mirroring some of what was happening out in the crowd. In the early going, injured fans were being carted off in makeshift ambulances one at a time through the winding, crowded concourse, and police hauled off one young belligerent in a Joffrey Lupul jersey and handcuffs.
Some had come up to seven hours beforehand and tailgated with tents and barbeques and beer, greeting the Leafs team bus with cheers when it arrived; others had been stranded for hours on the snowed-in roads and showed up well after the opening faceoff.
Almost all stayed around to brave the conditions until the final horn, three and a half hours after it started, standing and cheering – with one half of Michigan Stadium painted red with Wings jerseys and the other half Blue with Leafs ones – as Toronto centre Tyler Bozak became the hero by snapping the shootout winner past Detroit goalie Jimmy Howard.
The game’s four goals in regulation weren’t all bad, as can be the case in these games. James van Riemsdyk deftly batted a puck out of midair on the Leafs first; Justin Abdelkader tied things for Detroit late in the third after a terrific pass from the corner by teammate Brendan Smith.
But the strategy all along was primarily to shoot when possible, something both the skaters and goaltenders game planned for when it came to the skills competition.
Knowing a deke was likely to fail, Jonathan Bernier came way out of his net to cut down the angle.
Knowing a deke was difficult, Lupul and Bozak both picked holes in Howard, shot and scored.
“I didn’t really want the puck on the ice,” Bozak said. “I didn’t want to have to deal with that.”
No one was really complaining about the conditions, least of all a 27-year-old pro athlete from Regina. Even the most cynical present on Wednesday were sporting smiles by the end, with the Wings saying they loved the experience, and being part of hockey history, even in defeat.
Afterwards, Babcock took the podium and called it a “home run for hockey” – an odd turn of phrase given he had spent the day standing in a football stadium, but apt given all that could have gone wrong.
Other than the horrific roadways, which even held up the two teams getting to and from the game, very little did.
The players skated hard, adapting to the conditions with a little chip and chase style that led to all the goals in the game’s second half. The goalies tucked their chilled hands into their pants to keep warm.
The crowd cheered.
And the shovellers? They shovelled.
“It was an unbelievable experience,” said Phaneuf, clearly touched by the two day happening that included signing a new seven-year contract to remain a Leaf long term. “One that words can’t describe. The feeling when both anthems were going, the building, it was just so much energy. It’s cold. But the fans were still here with such great support.”
“It was just awesome,” Wings veteran Todd Bertuzzi said.
And it was.