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Friday, December 28, 2012
Updated: January 2, 6:22 PM ET
A hole in Hockeytown without Classic

By Craig Custance
ESPN The Magazine

DETROIT -- It's the kind of day when Dan Craig would have performed magic. The NHL's ice guru, responsible for perfecting the outdoor sheet of ice at the NHL's annual Winter Classic, would have appreciated the blanket of clouds overhead, with just enough sun fighting through to brighten the sky. The temperature is cold, but not too cold. Mid-30s Fahrenheit on a late December afternoon in Detroit.

And there is Comerica Park, empty. It was supposed to be home to a winter festival of outdoor hockey activities, including high school, junior and college hockey games along with two highly anticipated alumni events. All canceled because of a CBA fight.

Instead of a large sheet of white ice surrounded by kids playing that annual never-ending game of shinny, Comerica Park is a wide span of green. Impressively lush and well-groomed for December in Michigan.

Staring into the empty stadium brings another reminder of the NHL lockout's steep price. No winter festival in Detroit. No Winter Classic in Ann Arbor. No sign of the NHL anywhere in Hockeytown.

The chairs are upside down on tables across the street at Chris Chelios' Cheli's Chili, the doors locked and a dry-erase board near the window reads "Happy Holidays. Kitchen Closed. Sorry!"

The souvenir store attached to Comerica Park is open and holding a sale. Tigers World Series gear marked 85 percent off. You stop and ask a helpful employee if there's some canceled Winter Classic stuff lying around, maybe in the back somewhere.

Comerica Park
Comerica Park was supposed to host high school, junior and college hockey games, in addition to two alumni games as part of a winter festival in Detroit.

He pauses for a moment.

"That's hockey, right?" he asks.

Yeah, hockey.

"You might want to try Hockeytown," he suggests, pointing across the street to the bar and restaurant owned by Mike Ilitch and the Red Wings. There's no Winter Classic merchandise there either.

Instead, Hockeytown features impressive displays of memorabilia on the wall that are a sad reminder of who might have been involved in the alumni games. There's a great photo of a white-haired Gordie Howe on the ice, leaning against the boards chatting with Steve Yzerman. Both are smiling.

There's a picture of Hall of Famer Ted Lindsay, the players' union pioneer who at 87 years old now worries that both sides of the negotiating table are damaging the game he helped build.

There's also an empty bar. A manager is asked to chat about the impact the canceling of the Winter Classic and surrounding events has had on business this month. He politely declines. He passes on a phone number to the Red Wings public relations department. Smart man; no point in upsetting Ilitch, one of the owners backing the lockout who also happens to be his boss.

One customer gets up to leave. He's wearing a Ferris State hockey jacket and headed out the front door. Turns out, his son was supposed to play on the outdoor rink at Comerica Park in one of the high school games originally part of the winter festival. Instead, they moved indoors to Joe Louis Arena, which Dad still thinks is pretty cool.

"The Ilitch family has been great to reach out to us and still hold the games at Joe Louis Arena," said Ferris State coach Bob Daniels, on his way to watch son Pete and his Big Rapids high school teammates play in the suddenly available Red Wings home arena.

When the NHL comes back, the Winter Classic will return too. And the expectation is that Michigan Stadium will finally have its chance in 2014 to break outdoor hockey records, and Comerica Park will get a second chance to host everything it is missing this year.

That doesn't do Pete and his family much good. He's a senior, playing his last year of high school hockey. For him and others like him, the wiped-out game won't ever be replaced.

"For those kids, it's one of those once-in-a-lifetime chances that's gone," Daniels said.

And it's not just those kids.

University of Michigan senior A.J. Treais grew up in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. He anticipated at least 20 or 30 family members making the trip downtown to watch him and the Wolverines play Michigan Tech in the outdoor version of the Great Lakes Invitational, two days after Christmas.

He has played in outdoor games, but nothing quite like this.

Joe Louis
The Winter Classic was expected to have a $75 million impact on the region of southeast Michigan.

"Playing in Comerica would have been special," said Treais, who will continue to pursue a life in hockey after he graduates with a degree in movement science. "There's a lot of Tigers fans on my team."

During a recent Wolverines game against Western Michigan -- another team scheduled to play outdoors at Comerica before the lockout -- Treais had conversations with opposing players expressing their disappointment in the cancellation.

"Kids at the draws were talking to me in timeouts, saying it would have been really nice to play in Comerica," he said. It's not just the players who are disappointed, he added. It's other students on campus in Ann Arbor who would have been part of the main event. Selling concessions. Helping set up. The anticipation among the students began to build the moment the game was announced.

"Everyone has been excited," he said.

Well, they were.

Now there's an entire class of graduating students who move on with life. Enter the real world, get a real job.

Yeah, it'll be rescheduled, but without them.

"It sucks," said Sara Farmer, smoking a cigarette and reading an alt-weekly newspaper out front of a bar within sight of where the Winter Festival would have taken place in Detroit.

She's a bartender at Coaches Corner, which is an outfield relay away from Comerica Park. She points at a hotel up the block and says it would have been filled with hockey fans in town for the festivities. When the Winter Classic was announced, the league estimated that as many as 200,000 hockey fans would have visited Detroit for all the action downtown. The game was expected to have a $75 million impact on the region of southeast Michigan.

Those big numbers are tough to digest, so Farmer puts it in simpler terms. When there's an event downtown, she typically makes around $350 in tips during a shift. When there's not, it's closer to $100. Wipe out two weeks of action downtown and that's a significant difference for someone who isn't currently fighting over how to split billions of dollars in revenues the way NHL owners and players are. There was no "make-whole" provision for her this Christmas.

"I'm still giving gifts, but I shopped much earlier, I shopped smarter," she said. Her cigarette gone, she opens the door to the bar and heads back to work.

"You want a shot?" she asks.

Visiting fans from Toronto would have been perfectly comfortable in this bar, with Sara as their guide. Not just because it's the name of a "Hockey Night in Canada" segment, either. On the walls, there are black and white photos of old hockey fights at what looks like Olympia Stadium. The railing to the upper level of the bar is made entirely of old wooden hockey sticks.

And that's the thing that bothers Farmer. There's so much right now in Detroit to show off to the thousands of visitors. The turnaround in Downtown Detroit is advancing beyond the artists and the hipsters.

The giant Christmas tree next to the public skating rink at Campus Martius would have been the perfect place for a Leafs fan to grab hot chocolate and hang out next to outdoor bonfires between Winter Classic events. New restaurants and bars are opening all the time now in Detroit. Farmer has worked downtown for 20 years and has witnessed firsthand the fits and starts that came during attempts to rebuild her city.

Right now, there is momentum she believes in. It's momentum that really could have used the Winter Classic to push things forward. But then again, in Detroit, it's never easy.

"You have a downtown that's being revitalized," she said. "Then all of a sudden, you suck the life out of it."