The Griffins look forward to facing the Toronto Marlies on Dec. 30 at Comerica Park in their first-ever outdoor game.
Story by Mark Newman. Photo by Getty Images.
Griffins defenseman Nathan Paetsch has a mental circle drawn around the date of Monday, Dec. 30.
Like his teammates, Paetsch is excited about the opportunity to play outdoors when the Griffins host the Toronto Marlies at Comerica Park in Detroit. The game was shelved last year due to the NHL lockout.
"I was so excited last year when I saw that we were playing an outdoor game, and then it got cancelled, so I was pretty disappointed," Paetsch said. "It's great to get it back on the schedule."
Hockey, of course, is no stranger to the outdoors. In its earliest days, the sport was played outdoors on rivers, lakes and other natural ice surfaces. In fact, at the first Winter Olympics in 1924 in Chamonix, France, games were held outdoors. Various international and exhibition games were held outdoors over the years, but the sport had largely moved indoors.
The Cold War – the historic game between Michigan State University and the University of Michigan at Spartan Stadium in 2001 – is largely credited with starting the current popular trend of playing hockey outdoors.
The Griffins' outdoor game is part of the SiriusXM Hockeytown Winter Festival, which will conclude with a Dec. 31 doubleheader between alumni from the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs. The Winter Festival also includes the Great Lakes Invitational on Dec. 27-28 and an Ontario Hockey League doubleheader on Dec. 29. All games will be held at Comerica Park.
The 2014 NHL Winter Classic will pit the Red Wings against the Toronto Maple Leafs at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor on New Year's Day. It's the second appearance by the Red Wings in the marquee event, having faced the Chicago Blackhawks at Wrigley Field on Jan. 1, 2009.
For the majority of Griffins, as well as the franchise itself, the Comerica Park contest will be their first outdoor game. Five Griffins have taken part in outdoor games, either in college or the professional ranks.
As a member of the Buffalo Sabres, Paetsch participated in the inaugural Winter Classic in 2008, facing the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first regular-season outdoor professional ice hockey game to be played in the United States.
Paetsch recorded one shot during 12:49 of ice time on 21 shifts while playing on a temporary ice rink built on the football field of Ralph Wilson Stadium, the home of the NFL's Buffalo Bills.
"The whole experience was awesome," Paetsch recalled. "It was so cool because everything about the game was new; nobody knew what to expect."
Both teams wore vintage jerseys as Pittsburgh won 2-1 in a shootout on a goal by Sidney Crosby. Game-time temperatures were around the freezing mark, with snow falling much of the game, especially during the third period.
A total of 71,217 people attended the event, establishing an NHL attendance record. The crowd broke the former NHL record of 57,167 set at the outdoor Heritage Classic between the Montreal Canadiens and Edmonton Oilers in Edmonton, Alberta, on Nov. 22, 2003.
"It was loud, but it was a different loud," Paetsch said. "That many people make a different noise. It's like a heavier loud, not booming like inside an enclosed space. But it was intense."
Paetsch remembers the game was a blast, in spite of the snowy conditions that made play a little more challenging.
"I remember skating and getting hit in the face with snow," he said. "One time I tried to clear the puck, took a slapshot and the puck stopped by their blueline because there was just so much snow at that point."
Ice conditions were less than favorable as well.
"We knew the ice was going to be rough; we discussed it before the game," Paetsch said. "The whole experience was new to everyone, including the ice makers. I think they stopped the game 10 to 15 times to fill holes in the ice."
The near-freezing temperature didn't bother Paetsch. "I don't remember ever being too cold," he said. "Of course, I grew up in Saskatchewan, so I was used to skating in a lot colder temperatures."
Luke Glendening, on the other hand, probably shudders when he remembers the Camp Randall Classic that was held on the night of Feb. 6, 2010 before 55,031 fans – the second-largest crowd ever to witness a college hockey game – as his Michigan Wolverines lost to the Wisconsin Badgers.
The Badgers won 3-2, thanks to a pair of goals by future Griffins and Red Wings defenseman Brendan Smith, but it was the frigid temperatures that Glendening won’t forget. Wolverines head coach Red Berensen refused to wear a winter coat even though the thermometer dipped into the single digits with the wind chill.
"It was freezing, but coach didn't have a coat on until the third period," Glendening said. "I think he got sick after that."
Berensen might have already felt ill from the way the Wolverines lost. Michigan had a 2-1 lead until late in the game when Smith scored power-play goals at 14:28 and 18:38. Even so, Glendening said the game at Camp Randall Stadium was a memorable experience.
“The biggest thing I took away from the event is that you have to enjoy it while you're there," Glendening said. "It's a momentous occasion and when it's over, you wish you could have another."
Luckily for Glendening, he got two more chances at Michigan – and both of those times, the Wolverines came out victors.
Michigan beat Michigan State 5-0 in The Big Chill at the Big House on Dec. 11, 2010, when the Wolverines played host to a record crowd of 113,411 in the hockey rematch between the two rivals. Permanent lighting was added to Michigan Stadium for the event, which opened with fireworks and a flyover by a B-2 Stealth Bomber.
"It was special just because it was at the Big House, and I had gone to a lot of football games there when I was younger," Glendening said. "Also, every year at Michigan, we had to run the stairs there, so I had some torturous memories of the place, so to be able to be there and play a game in front of that many people was just awesome."
Glendening's third outdoor game at Michigan came at Progressive Field in Cleveland on Jan. 15, 2012, in the Frozen Diamond Faceoff. The No. 13-ranked Wolverines beat the No. 2-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes 4-1 in front of 25,864 fans on the converted baseball diamond.
"The weather was OK, not the worst," Glendening said. "Playing in a baseball park was cool because the fans were right on top of us along the baseline, so that was fun. Actually, all of the outdoor games have been fun. They've all been special. All had a little different feeling, and I've enjoyed every one of them."
Like Glendening, Teemu Pulkkinen has played in three outdoor games. The first time was the 2011 Talviklassikko on Feb. 5, 2011 at Helsinki Olympic Stadium, which was built for the 1940 Olympics that were cancelled due to World War II
A Finnish Elite League-record crowd of 36,644 watched HFK beat Jokerit 4-3 despite two goals from Pulkkinen.
"The weather was perfect," Pulkkinen recalled. "It was the first outdoor game in Finland and there were so many people, it was amazing."
His Jokerit team fared no better in the 2012 Talviklassikko, losing 3-2 in a shootout to HIFK before 34,264 fans on Feb. 4, 2012 at Helsinki Olympic Stadium.
"I remember it was very cold," he said. "We had blankets and heaters under the bench, plus we wore hats under our helmets. At the same time, it was a lot of fun."
Pulkkinen got to play on the same ice five days later when Finland hosted Russia in a Euro Hockey Tour match in front of 25,036 fans who braved 5-degree temperatures. Russia blanked Finland 2-0 in the game which featured cheerleaders, fireworks and an appearance by Hockey Bird, the mascot of the 2012 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship.
There were fireworks and plenty of flag waving when Adam Almquist took part in the 2011 Swedish Elite League's Outdoor Classic on a makeshift ice rink at Elmia Arena in Jönköping, Sweden, on Dec. 10, 2011.
Dubbed the Jubilee Match because the event celebrated HV71's 40th anniversary, the game broke the attendance record for a sports event in Jönköping, topping the 18,582 that attended a soccer game in 1950.
“It was an awesome experience, absolutely amazing," Almquist said. "The weather was actually pretty bad, really cold. My parents and some friends were freezing, but I didn't feel it. It was a little rainy and a little snowy, so the ice wasn't the best."
Almquist's HV71 team lost a 1-0 shootout to Linköpings. "We didn't score, but it happens," he said. "When the ice is bad, you have to keep things a little simpler, stay away from the fancy plays."
Calle Jarnkrok played in the 2012 Swedish Elite League Outdoor Classic. His Brynäs IF team beat Timrå IK 3-0 on Dec. 8, 2012, before 15,009 fans in Gävlebocken Arena in Gävle, Sweden. Jarnkrok had one assist.
"We had some luck – it was a good weather day," he said. "It was still pretty cold, very cold actually, about [5 degrees Fahrenheit]. But it was a great experience. The whole atmosphere was a lot of fun."
With rave reviews from players who have participated in outdoor games, it's no surprise that the Griffins are excited about the opportunity to play in Comerica Park on Dec. 30. Game time is 5 p.m. More than 30,000 tickets had been sold as of press time, with the rest available through Ticketmaster.com for $18, $28 and $38 apiece.
"I grew up playing hockey outdoors," said Xavier Ouellet, who grew up outside Montreal. “This will be my first outdoor game and I can't wait to do it. It's going to be a great experience."
"I hope there will be a lot of people watching because a big crowd really adds to the feeling of the game," Pulkkinen said. "When the stadium was full in Finland, it was an amazing feeling. My only advice is to enjoy the game. It's going to be fun."