The best non-championship sporting event of the year took place yesterday when the NHL staged their annual Winter Classic.
In this case, the word staged should, perhaps, be written as “staged”, because it sure looked like a movie on Wednesday when the Maple Leafs visited the Red Wings in Ann Arbor, Michigan. 104,000 people showed up, it snowed, and the two rivals played to the very end until Toronto escaped with a 3-2 shootout victory.
The concept of the Winter Classic centers on “pond hockey”, a form of the sport that spawned a large percentage of players in the NHL.
The guy writing this played hockey at Lake Waterford in Pasadena, MD for several winters in the 1970’s. As Bryan Adams sings…”Those were the best days of my life…”
I played Little League baseball, youth football, youth hockey and a couple of seasons of youth basketball. None of those sports came close to equaling the memories I have of playing “pond hockey”.
The hockey yesterday was a trip down memory lane for anyone who grew up playing hockey on a lake or a pond. Well, except we never had 104,000 people watching us at Lake Waterford.
The ice wasn’t great (just like “it was”), the bounces were irregular, the puck was slower and the stifling cold temperatures made it just a little tougher to skate up and down the ice.
Conditions in a typical NHL game are mostly perfect.
Conditions on the lake or pond rarely come close to perfect, which makes them — well — perfect.
And, that’s why the NHL has scored with their Winter Classic. It takes the players out of their typical elements and shoves them back to their youth where you laced them up and played the game because everyone else in the neighborhood was playing. It didn’t matter how cold it was, how much it was snowing or what the other team looked like.
You just played.
That’s how the NHL gets it right with their annual outdoor game on New Year’s Day. Whatever the conditions, you go out there and play.
It’s actually more perfect than you can imagine.
All that’s missing is a lakeside fire burning.