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Wednesday, January 1, 2014
This was the best Classic yet

By Pierre LeBrun
ESPN.com

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- The Winter Classic began as a new, shiny vehicle for the NHL six years ago in snowy Buffalo as a way to reach out to new fans and broaden the scope of hockey in the United States.

And it did just that, with the game's best player -- Sidney Crosby -- once again lending his marketing power in the original Winter Classic with a memorable shootout winner, and every ensuing New Year's Day game from Wrigley Field to Fenway Park to each venue altogether helping raise awareness and widen the game's appeal in America. It was the point of it all, and it worked every time.

On Wednesday, however, with the first venture by a Canadian NHL team into this once exclusive U.S.-only domain, we were reminded -- and treated -- to the rich and textured history of the Toronto Maple Leafs, their presence in this year's event signaled in full force by some 50,000-plus fans wearing Blue and White muscling their way across the border into the Big House and rivaling the other 50,000-plus fans from the hometown Detroit Red Wings.

Hockeytown USA met its match in Leaf Nation. The game was secondary in many ways to the spectacle itself, as it always is in the Winter Classic, and what will forever be remembered from the record crowd of 105,491 is the army of Leaf uniforms invading snowy Michigan Stadium like it was their own house.

There's nothing wrong with growing the game in the U.S., where there's always more potential growth to be had, but this season's Winter Classic was a classy tribute to the roots of the game, a nod to the country that gave the world this sport and a tip of the hat to two great Original Six franchises that layer the history book with delicious memories and achievements.

The Leafs and the Wings, center stage for the world to see, was an unbeatable matchup in a legendary football venue perhaps unmatched in sport.

"Today was a home run for hockey," said Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock, who doubles as Team Canada's Olympic head coach, perfectly suited to absorb what this game meant to both sides of the border.

Maple Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf said it hit him during the anthems how lucky he was to be part of it all.

"Seeing the fans and hearing them, it's an experience that I won't forget and one that I'm really honored and privileged to have been part of," he said after his team's 3-2 shootout victory. "For a player to play in a game like this with as many people that were here and the weather and everything, it was an unbelievable time."

Oh, there will always be critics. It wasn't a normal NHL game played out there, the buildup of snow requiring shoveling during several stoppages in play. It also meant a change in the way in which teams would normally carry out their game plans. Heck, Leafs goalie Jonathan Bernier told ESPN.com that he could barely see a Red Wings clearing attempt during the first period, when the snow was especially effecting visibility, and didn't pick it up until it was about a foot away from nailing him in the chest.

Bernier certainly wasn't complaining, however, he found it amusing. The players embraced the quirky curveballs that came with an outdoor game.

"The NHL did a good job keeping the ice as clean as possible," Phaneuf said. "It's an experience. It's an outdoor game, in the middle of winter you're going to have snow."

Next to a playoff game, there's no other game NHLers are vying more to be in than a Winter Classic. Veteran Detroit winger Daniel Aldredsson was a question mark to play after tweaking his back earlier in the week. But he wasn't going to miss this for the world.

"I know yesterday coming here for practice, coming out on the ice for a few minutes and taking the team picture, taking a few laps, I was telling myself, 'I got to find a way to get into the lineup tomorrow,'" Alfredsson said. "I thought it was really cool out there today. It was really special."

There's was a sense of total elation, especially in the winning locker-room, as you might imagine, especially given how Toronto, just like Detroit, has had a roller-coaster season.

"When you have an opportunity to play in a game like this, it makes it that much sweeter when you win it," Phaneuf said. "It couldn't have been any better of script, it goes right to a shootout with the snow falling all day. It was just a great experience all around."

And while the memories might be sweeter for the Leafs because of the extra point earned in the shootout, there were few long faces in the Wings locker-room. No question, points are valuable these days for Detroit in a season that's been a tough grind, but the moment at hand can't be lost, either.

"You had to [look around]," said Detroit forward Justin Abdelaker, whose third-period goal forced extra time. "This is a game where obviously you're going to play hard, but at the same time you have to enjoy it. This is a once-in-a-lifetime deal here with 105,000 fans. It was just packed. Toronto had good support. We had good support. It was a great experience overall."

Perhaps there were indeed two winners who left the ice on this day. The Wings peppered the Leafs with 43 shots and can't leave here thinking for a second they left themselves short in effort.

"I never talk to my team after we lose. Ever," Babcock said. "I did today. I just said, 'You should be proud. You've got an off day tomorrow. Enjoy your family. And I asked you not to get carried away last night, so here's an opportunity to. Be thankful for the experience. Remember the experience.'

"I think it's so important," Babcock added. "I said it yesterday. Life's about moments. You only remember moments. You don't remember everything. This is one of those things. And for today, for those kids that were skating on the ice, the kids that were introduced, the Olympians, all those things were very special."

So special, I'd argue, that I wish this was the only outdoor game on the NHL calendar. No question there will be some memorable moments in New York, L.A., Chicago and Vancouver in the season's other outdoor games, but it's the cold, hard truth that there's a chance the league has overplayed its hand by holding six outdoor games this season. Too much of a good thing is not a good thing. If there's any hope it's that despite the money-maker these games are both for owners and the players in a pot they share 50-50, that there's also a realization that days like this in Ann Arbor should stand alone and not have to share the spotlight in the same season.

And perhaps, it will anyway -- stand alone, that is. Because regardless of what happens in the five other outdoor games this season, there won't be anything that will match a record crowd of 105,491, nor the dueling, historical significance of having a pair of Original Six franchises bringing two countries together on one sheet of ice.

Simply put, it was the best Winter Classic yet.