Every winter, when I was a kid, there was an outdoor rink in the park behind my house. On any given day, there would be up to thirty people skating on it at a time. It brought the neighbourhood together. In a nutshell, this is Canada – an outdoor rink with a bunch of kids trying to emulate the heroes they watch on Hockey Night in Canada every Saturday night. It was perfect.
Fast forward a decade later to December 30, 2013. After seven long months of anticipation, three friends and I, embarked on a road trip to Michigan to serve our duty as fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Over the course of the next four days, we would watch two outdoor hockey games, flirt with frostbite, and enjoy every second of it.
As for the people I went on this trip with – we all met in residence, in University, on the greatest floor that was every randomly assembled. Every time the Leafs played, we watched the games together. Doors were open. Loud cheers echoed down the hallway. “Leafs Fans Unite” was the text sent out prior to puck drop. And the whole time, we always thought it would be cool to go to a game together.
Well, here was our chance. Our first Leafs game together wasn’t going to be in an arena. No. It was going to be in a house. More specifically, The Big House, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, with 105, 000 other people.
So there we were, in a car, and literally on the road to the Winter Classic at 8:30AM.
I sat in the passenger seat, which means I was, by default, the navigator for the trip. (This sentence may not sound important right now, but it sets up a story later on.)
We quickly realized that for the next four days we were only as strong as our weakest bladder. We also realized that the shenanigans would be frequent and our cheeks were in for a workout of a lifetime.
We attended the AHL outdoor game at Comerica Park, on Monday, between the Toronto Marlies and the Grand Rapids Griffins. I kept calling them, the Grand River Rapids. The cold temperatures and lack of sleep were probably numbing my brain, even though it sounds like a great name for a team!
This was my first time at a baseball stadium that wasn’t the home of the Toronto Blue Jays. Comerica Park definitely has a baseball-ish feel to it. Our seats were in right field. We had a nice view of the rink and the video board.
Before the game, we went down to the first row along the first base line for pictures. We noticed that fans sitting in the first row would not be able to see the ice. They would be able to see the crest on the player’s jersey and higher. That’s it. No puck. No ice. No skates. And unless every goal went top shelf, they would miss the goals as well. Wow. First row and you see nothing. I bet they weren’t expecting that.
The first period came and went, and so did we – to somewhere warm. When you can’t feel your feet, you have to do something about it. They are the two things that get you from point A to point B. And when they don’t work, well…you can fill in the blanks.
We found ourselves in an elevator of Leafs fans heading up to the Tigers lounge. It was a nice warm area with fancy tables, food, a view of the game, washrooms, TVs, leather chairs, and heat. If a bearded man were standing at the entrance, I would have thought I was in heaven.
We decided to watch the second period on TV in the comfort of the aforementioned leather chairs.
I got a grand total of zero minutes of sleep the previous night, in anticipation of our trip. I starting falling asleep on the chair. My instincts woke me up before my friends could snap a picture. Even when I’m dozing off, I know when an embarrassing picture is in the works.
The third period rolled around and we went back to our seats to brave the conditions. Then overtime happened. Then a shootout. The Marlies won the game.
Afterwards, there were a lot of verbal exchanges between fans outside. Two days until the big Winter Classic game and I thought we were about to see a royal rumble match break out between Leafs and Red Wings fans. I was half-expecting a referee to run in and ring the bell.
We got our moneys-worth. We also gained valuable knowledge on how we should dress for outdoor games. We already had multiple layers on, but we needed to look like Puffy Cheezies if we were going to survive the Winter Classic on Wednesday.
The next night, New Year’s Eve, we went out to dinner at Olive Garden. I’ve never been there before, but it’s Italian, and I’m Italian, so I wasn’t worried about anything.
The garlic sticks were incredible. The salad was impeccable. The calamari was indescribable. And the Fettuccine Alfredo with Scallops and Shrimp was immaculate.
Forget the New Year’s Eve festivities outside, there was a New Year’s Eve party in my mouth, followed by an after party in my stomach. It was delicious and the service was top-notch.
Then it was time to leave…
I lead the way out of the restaurant. Or at least I thought I was. I ended up in the next dining room, saw an exit at the other end and proceeded to walk towards it.
At this point, I still knew exactly where I was going. My friends, however, were calling me back to where the real exit was. There I was, in the middle of a dining room, wearing my Rugby Canada jacket – literally carrying my country on my shoulders – and I looked like an idiot in front of a bunch of strangers.
Who gets lost in a restaurant? Me, apparently. And now every American in that restaurant thinks that Canadians have a poor sense of direction.
Hey, remember when I said I was the navigator for this trip?
We spent the night in our hotel room playing the most intense game of Cheat that card players have ever seen.
The next day was the Winter Classic. It didn’t even feel like New Year’s Day. The occasion was bigger than the numbers on the calendar.
It was snowing. Perfect. The highway was a logjam with multiple accidents. But we finally made it to the parking garage, before walking twenty minutes to the stadium. I had seen pictures of the stadium. I had heard how many people can cram into the stands. I knew it would be big. After all, it was called The Big House.
I didn’t know how big it was, until we walked through the tunnel and saw the stadium for the first time. It was beautiful. I don’t know any other way to describe it.
The entire game I couldn’t believe I was actually there. I was jealous of myself. I don’t know if that’s possible, but I was.
I don’t think there was a face in that stadium that wasn’t smiling that day. To be a part of a crowd that consisted of 105, 491 people was something I will never forget.
It’s a good thing there was no roof on the stadium because it would have been blown off when the teams made their way to the ice.
Our seats were in row 14, behind the Leafs net, among a sea of blue. The atmosphere around us was amazing. “Let’s Go Red Wings” chants were drowned out by chants of “Go Leafs Go.”
Everyone stood for the entire game, whether they wanted to or not. Our section was forced to stand because of one individual about three rows in front of us. He was at least 6 foot 5 and refused to sit down. That’s fine. But if you’re going to stand, at least watch the game that is 9 rows in front of you. Instead, this man chose to turn his back to the rink and watch the video board 70 rows behind us.
I understand that sometimes the best view for sporting events is on your couch in front of the TV. This was not one of those times. The atmosphere was magical and this man chose to watch it unfold on the video board. I don’t understand people, sometimes.
Even with the shoulder-to-shoulder seating and the shared body heat among fans, it was freezing outside. I was wearing boots, 2 pairs of socks, 2 pairs of pants, 2 t-shirts, 1 long sleeve shirt, a hoodie, a jersey, 2 pairs of gloves, and a hat. My body was warm. My feet were numb. I was unsure if I still had toes. I didn’t care. If I was getting frostbite, it was worth it.
Just like the AHL game on Monday, this game went to a shootout. Tyler Bozak won it for the Leafs and our side of the house…I mean, stadium, went bananas. B-A-N-A-N…etc. The phrase “roar of the crowd” was definitely applicable in this situation.
Unlike Red Wings fans after the AHL game, Leafs fans weren’t chirping the opposing fans after the game. Sure, we chanted Go Leafs Go, but we kept it civil. Good job, Toronto.
Walking down the street after the game with a bunch of fans felt like a trial run for when we…*gulp*…win the Stanley Cup. That is how it felt. And it felt good.
We got back to the parking garage and moved about 10 feet in 40 minutes. We were going nowhere, fast. So we decided to park and go for dinner. After striking out at many restaurants, we found ourselves in a place called Five Guys Burgers and Fries.
Did I embarrass myself in this restaurant? Yes.
On their menu, they have a “cheeseburger” (two patties) and a “little cheeseburger” (one patty). I went with the little cheeseburger.
However, when I ordered, I said “light cheeseburger.” At the time, I had no idea that this is what I said. I could read the menu. I knew what I wanted. The cashier says to me, “You want a light cheeseburger?” I thought he was saying it in a mocking tone, as if he were shocked that I would order that and not a regular cheeseburger. I thought he was being unprofessional.
Afterwards, my friends told me that I had called it a “light cheeseburger”, which threw the cashier off because that is not an item on their menu. Man, did I feel like an idiot. I didn’t even realize I called it something else.
So what’s worse? Getting lost in a restaurant, or ordering an item not on the menu?
The following day (January 2), we came home. I had gone four days without any phone or internet service (intentionally). It was easier than I thought. It was nice not having to reply to texts or waste my time on the internet.
However, after I got home, I felt completely lost in the world. I never realized how many things happen over the course of four days, until I tuned out the world.
This blog post has gone on long enough and I still have stories to tell. So, stay tuned in the next few days for a post about bloopers, stories, and behind the scenes events from this trip.
All in all, my Winter Classic experience was one of the best experiences of my life. I couldn’t have gone with better people and I couldn’t be prouder to be a Leafs fan, or Canadian.
Just like the outdoor rink I used to skate on – with 30 people – behind my house, the outdoor rink at The Big House – with 105,000 people – was perfect.