The tickets are sold and the seats prepared but whether all those fans can make it to The Big House for the big game remains to be seen.
Road conditions were reduced to gridlock prior to the opening faceoff between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings for the NHL's Winter Classic on New Year's Day, with fans trapped in their cars for more than 25 kilometres leading up to Michigan Stadium.
The folks from Guinness World Records are on hand to verify if the game will exceed the 104,173 fans who attended a college hockey game at this same venue in 2010, but they will count only those fans making it through the turnstiles toward their official tally.
Roughly 107,000 tickets have been sold for Wednesday's game but with 15 centimetres of snow expected throughout the day and roads moving as slowly as they are, it's possible several thousand fans are ultimately going to be unable to make the game.
NHL officials have set the world record as a target ever since the Michigan Stadium Winter Classic was first announced nearly two years ago, and the league paid a rumoured $3-million for the right to use the mammoth stadium -- one of the world's biggest -- for the event.
The good news is that the NHL's attendance record for a single game will be set no matter what. That mark is substantially lower at 71,217 for the first Winter Classic six years ago between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Buffalo Sabres at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
The Leafs and Wings were able to test out the conditions for the first and only time at practice on Tuesday and gave a thumbs up to the ice surface, which has been a significant problem at previous outdoor games when the weather gets too warm or cold.
Leafs winger James van Riemsdyk -- the resident expert given that he has played in two previous Winter Classics -- felt the ice was the best he’d seen at the event, while netminder Jonathan Bernier quipped it was “better than the ACC” in reference to the often slushy surface at Toronto’s home rink.
“The ice was certainly fast,” alternate captain Joffrey Lupul added. “You could move the puck well and you can shoot the puck really well.”
Most players seemed to agree that the two goaltenders, Bernier and Detroit’s Jimmy Howard, would have it the toughest.
Not only will snow affect their ability to see the puck, but the sun is a factor given the 1 p.m. ET start time. The cold will also force them to wear even more cumbersome gear than usual, as the netminders won’t be making trips to the heated benches during the game.
“Probably the biggest thing would be if it’s sunny,” said Bernier, who plans to wear eye black to help cut down on the glare the way athletes in other outdoor sports do. “That’s going to be an issue with where I’m starting the first period. It’s all new for most of us.”
“It’s pretty safe to say a good game plan is to get a lot of pucks on net because this is certainly a different environment for the goalies,” Lupul added. “You never know how they’re going to react with snow and sun.”
As for the skaters, they predicted that the wind would be the biggest factor on their game.
The NHL has a contingency plan where if it is blowing in one direction to the point that it affects the game, the teams will switch ends not only after each period but midway through the third period and a potential overtime period.
Leafs coach Randy Carlyle noted there was a roughly “15 mile an hour” wind blowing during their practice, and it made things significantly tougher for players going against the brisk breeze.
“The wind makes a big difference – I was surprised,” Leafs leading scorer Phil Kessel said. “It’s hard skating into it.”
Some players had fun with the weather at practice by wearing new gear, which included balaclavas to cover their necks and faces. Others simply wore multiple layers of clothing under their equipment, although most felt they would be able to play without it.
Leafs defenceman Paul Ranger was sporting the most interesting look with eye black drawn all across his face in a bit of a camouflaged look – an homage to characters on favourite TV show, Duck Dynasty – but wouldn’t reveal if he would keep it for the game.
How all the changes will affect the actual action won’t be known until right when the puck drops, but both coaches are clearly keeping a close eye on the weather and are aiming to ensure players’ focus is on winning rather than the spectacle of it all.
Given the uncertainty, simply being ready for anything might be the best way to go.
“The conditions can change,” Lupul explained. “I guess you liken it to a football game played in a dome as opposed to games where they play when it’s cold and snowing. Your game plan’s going to change a little bit. That’ll be a discussion for before the game.”
As for the veteran of these outdoor extravaganzas, van Riemsdyk offered only one piece of advice to the rest of his teammates: Coming prepared to compete is better than the alternative.
“The memory will be better if we win the game,” he said. “I’m 0-for-2 in the first two I played in so it’d be nice to win one of them.”
Red Wings coach Mike Babcock – another veteran of two of these games – agreed.
“You don't remember everything in your life, but you remember moments,” Babcock said. “This should be one. But it’s way more fun when you win. It’s been like that since you were six.”Report Typo/Error