Winter Classic: Winning in a hockey wonderland: Leafs not only victors

Bozak scores the winner in the shootout. (Getty Images)
Bozak scores the winner in the shootout. (Getty Images)

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- "For me today was a home run for hockey."

Even though the Winter Classic was played on the University of Michigan's football field, Red Wings coach Mike Babcock's mixed metaphor was perhaps the perfect topper to a memorable winter day with hockey on full display.

After one period, the Winter Classic was much more winter than it was classic, at least when you're talking about the actual play on the ice. There were no goals and there were more shovels than scoring chances as Mother Nature's relentless deluge continued all game long.

As great as the scene was for the viewer, it didn't exactly yield the best hockey. It wasn't really a problem with the ice as we've been accustomed to seeing in the NHL's annual celebration but the constant snow that piled up and made life a little more difficult for everybody involved. But like anything, if you see it enough you get used to it as the game picked up steam and ended with about all the drama you could ask for, evoking memories of the first Winter Classic with a shootout required to settle matters with the snow shower persisting.

Even when it was done, nobody was going to confuse the 2014 Winter Classic with a masterpiece of hockey art but in a situation like this, the setting isn't the background, it's front and center. It's only a bonus when the game adds the excitement as it did on New Year's Day, ending with a shootout victory for the Maple Leafs over the Red Wings, 3-2.

"That event lived up with everything and more," the victorious Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf said while beaming after the game. "What a special game to be a part of."

What exactly made it so special? The litany of images that emerge.

It was the image of Phil Kessel in the dressing room after the game trying to wipe sweat off his face and ending with eye black all over his hands.

"I've got this stuff all over me, eh?" Kessel quipped. "Smearing it."

It was the image of Red Wings GM Ken Holland walking around the massive concourse as the game hit overtime, Red Wings fans seeing his face walking by in disbelief. One fan stopped what he was doing and began professing his love for Holland five times, just in case Holland didn't hear him the first four. Holland himself was struck at the unbelievable scene, almost left in awe at what the Big House did for a hockey game and astounded at how striking the entire day was.

It was the image of Tyler Bozak being hugged by his teammates after delivering the shootout winner amid the falling flakes.

It was the image of the Red Wings staying around in defeat to salute the hardy crowd on hand and the postgame handshake line normally reserved for playoff series wins.

It was the image of Jonathan Bernier in goal with the toque on his head making sure to cover the ear holes so that bitter wind wouldn't get in and make things more uncomfortable than it already was.

It was simply the image of 105,000 fans watching a hockey game together. It was the scene that the Winter Classic was meant to live.

It was sure to be a memorable game just with that Big House scene alone, the monster crowd splitting the stadium down the red line with blue on one side, red on the other. It's a moment for fans more than anything else. That was not lost on the players who were soaking in the glory of this game for all it was worth. Every single player remarked after the game about being sure to look around and take in the scene. It was something they won't soon forget.

"It was something very special to us," the winning Bernier said. "As hockey players to have 105,000 people screaming for us is really amazing,"

Not to get lost in the view of the NHL's massive celebration of the sport, almost flaunting its splendor, was the fact that two points were up for grabs between two teams that were deadlocked in the standings to start the second half of the NHL season.

To be honest, the Wings were the better of the two teams in this game, they had 43 shots to Toronto's 26 and looked like they had a couple on which they came oh so close but didn't go in thanks to Bernier (or should that be no thanks?). It stung like every single stuck to the hands, but not even losing that second point could quite spoil the attitudes of the Red Wings on this day.

"Probably walking out before, warmups when there were a lot of people here already," Red Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg said of his impressions from the game. "Even in the bus ride in, seeing tailgating everywhere. Overall it was cool, a great, great experience for the group."

"I thought it was a spectacular venue, great crowd for both teams. Great hockey game," Babcock added after the game. "The conditions made it so some of the skill in the game was eliminated, but I thought the players competed hard. And even myself as the coach, the last issue out, I thought our team played well. We had the puck a ton today. It was a good game for our team. All in all it was a good day. "

For the follies of the Winter Classic, it is often the imperfections of it that make it so glorious and an event that no hockey fan will forget.

Babcock almost nailed it: it was a great day.

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