If you’re a big hockey fan, you’ve probably heard about the big game. Next New Year’s Day – January 1, 2013 – two of the Original Six teams will renew their rivalry when the puck drops at the University of Michigan’s “Big House” for the Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic. The Toronto Maple Leafs and the Detroit Red Wings will battle in one of the biggest games ever played in hockey, a match made sweeter due to the anticipated record-breaking crowd and the heated rivalry behind it.
This great feud dates all the way back to January 4, 1927, when the Toronto St. Patricks defeated the Detroit Cougars, 2-1, putting Toronto up 1-0 in the record books. Eighty-five years later, Toronto continues to lead the all-time series by a single game, 276 victories to 275. (The series includes 93 ties.) This remarkable equality extends to the Stanley Cup Playoffs, where the Wings and Leafs have split 118 decisions right down the middle with 59 victories each.
When did this international rivalry first heat up? It could have been their first postseason tango, the 1936 Cup Finals. In this best-of-five series, Detroit went up two games to none, but the Leafs roared back to win games three and four. This set the stage for an exceptional final game. Detroit came away with a nail-biting 3-2 victory for their first Stanley Cup. Six years later, Detroit was up three games to none in a best-of-seven series. Toronto rallied, aided by some questionable officiating, to win the next four games and the Stanley Cup. Players, coaches and fans were treated to great hockey, with the Leafs’ unprecedented comeback foreshadowing a riotous rivalry.
Dick Duff, former Toronto Maple Leafs player, scored the two fastest goals in NHL postseason history against the Red Wings in the last game of the 1963 Cup Final, a series Toronto won in five games. “It just happened,” the retired left winger says today in his thick Canadian accent. Games at the old Olympia rink were the most exciting because the stands were so close to the rink, he says, and fans were almost on the ice. Duff had the chance to win six Stanley Cups during his career (two with Toronto, four with Montreal), as well as play against one of the best players ever known to hockey, Red Kelly. “I always say, if you want to win, put a Frenchman on your team,” he quips.
It’s small wonder that this battle to be the better franchise has been so close, seeing that both teams have shared the likes of some of the best players in NHL history. Leonard Patrick “Red” Kelly was a special player, starting his career in the NHL in 1947 as a 19-year-old phenomenon. He won four Stanley Cups with Detroit before being traded to Toronto, where the perennial All-Star went on to win another four Cups. “His sweater deserves to be hanging in Toronto and Detroit,” Duff says. During his 20-year career, Kelly had a combined total of 823 regular-season points playing for Detroit and Toronto and remains the greatest player ever to suit up for both teams.
Detroit legend Ted Lindsay thinks that the Winter Classic is an interesting game because it’s played outdoors, like games were generations ago. “Once a year is good enough,” Lindsay says. More than that and it wouldn’t be as special, he explains. Both Duff and Lindsay agree that there isn’t much of a rivalry between the two teams now because they don’t play each other nearly as often as they would like to.
This historic rivalry, paired with the location, makes this game especially exciting. The University of Michigan football stadium, otherwise known as The Big House, holds the distinction of being the largest sports venue in North America. The stadium holds approximately 115,000 screaming fans. The biggest crowd to show up at Michigan Stadium was of 114,804 people for a football game between the Wolverines and Notre Dame. With Ann Arbor less than five hours from Toronto by car, it’s anticipated that an even larger crowd will show up. Ticket prices have yet to be determined, but there is talk that the minimum cost of a seat will be around $100.
Red Berenson, who played five seasons with the Wings, has been the head coach of U-M’s hockey program for 27 years. “Even though the game is at The Big House, it is Detroit’s home game,” he says. Berenson thinks that the possibility of cramming 115,000 people into the stadium will make the game the best Winter Classic to date. “It will be an experience for all. There’s nothing like it.”
John Foglia agrees. “There might even be more Toronto fans (at the game) because they are used to paying higher prices for games as opposed to the Detroit fans,” says Foglia, who grew up in the Windsor area and started out as a Leafs fan. However, living so close to Detroit, he would cross the border with his friends on weekends to watch the Wings play and eventually switched his allegiance to the players in the blood-red uniforms. He says he would love to see both teams win.
Over the past several years, the Maple Leafs have been a mediocre team that hasn’t made the playoffs for some time. The Red Wings, on the other hand, have made the playoffs the last 21 years. Leafs fans love to taunt Wings fans, but Detroit returns the favour by teasing about the number of Cups recently won. The Leafs have nabbed 13 Cups but haven’t been successful since 1967. The Wings are right behind with 11 Cups, including four since 1997.
Brandon Farrand doesn’t think the Wings will stand a chance against his united Leafs. Farrand grew up in Windsor but chose to support the Leafs from the start because he liked the maple leaf logo on their jerseys. This affection soon turned into a passion as he watched games growing up. “I predict 3-2 for the Leafs,” Farrand says. He believes that this game will raise the bar to another level and he can’t wait to be there shouting for his team. “Simply, if I am not there, that means I will be dead. I’ll be there along with over 65,000 of my brothers and sisters from Leafs Nation.”
Anticipation over the 2013 Winter Classic illustrates once again the adage that hockey is not just a game; it’s a way of life. Says Berenson: “It is a great event for the NHL, a great event for the state of Michigan, and a great event for Detroit.”