Thanks exclusively to the Winter Classic, the National Hockey League owns New Year's Day like the NFL does Thanksgiving and the NBA does Christmas. But the NHL's holiday tradition feels miles different from those guys. Today's installment between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings inside the famous Michigan Big House will feature temperatures in the teens and snow showers. Not to mention north of 105,000 hockey fans. It will look amazing. It will be deafening. It will be glorious.
And that's what separates the Winter Classic from the other guys' holiday games.
Among a slew of other things.
The Winter Classic is therapeutic for the NHL as a whole. It's like a bag of frozen peas for the numerous black eyes the league suffers. It's the best tonic for whatever ails the league's image. The whole Shawn Thornton debacle? Forgotten for at least today. That pesky lockout that cost everyone this spectacle last season? Forgiven because it's finally here. Whatever trouble it's in or criticism it's under, the NHL is given a one-day reprieve. That's some of the magic of the Winter Classic. That's why New Year's Day is Gary Bettman's favorite.
Fans love the Winter Classic. We love seeing professional players take a sheet of ice with clouds and a shining sun that offers no relief from the cold overhead. For today at least, we look at these guys not as millionaires but as kids in a pond pickup game. A return to their roots and reminder of why they fell in love with the game. It's also a relating point between the players and the fans. Half of the Canadian viewers are probably playing pond hockey for hours before the puck drops in Ann Arbor. It's that sense of purity and nostalgia which makes the heart of the Winter Classic beat.
And then there's the scenery. Oh, the grand ever changing scenery. The Lions and Cowboys play under their same domes every Thanksgiving and NBA courts are far from pleasing to the eyes. Heck, they're the ugliest things in all of major sports. But the Winter Classic's landscape is forever changing and forever beautiful (sans the 2011 Pittsburgh one). The overcast grey skies made Fenway look haunting. The Wrigley Field scoreboard overlooking a NHL rink looked like something that should have happened long before. And the team's throwback sweaters . . . marvelous. These visual cues are a major reason why the Winter Classic works. It's also just darn cool.
The Winter Classic is greatness. Anyway you cut it, it's greatness. And for years to come, it will always be. Enjoy the game, folks. Puck drops at 1:00pm.
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