There’s a story Red Berenson likes to tell about how he first came to the University of Michigan as a student. He’s from Regina, Saskatchewan, a city over 1,000 miles away from Ann Arbor that — despite being the capital of the province — is best know for it’s large and flat farmland.
Berenson never assumed hockey was going to be his whole life. Playing for the Regina Pats junior hockey team and hoping the Montreal Canadiens would sign him didn’t have many alternatives. Either he would make it or would be a “hockey bum” (his term). He more wanted options and realized an education was the best way to get them. He crossed referenced the U.S. schools with hockey teams with a list of the best academic schools. Michigan was the best of both worlds.
In the two years I covered the Michigan hockey team, he’s told the story a couple of times. And when Red Berenson sits in a room, slowly recounting the past, his eyes becoming alive, you remember every damn word he says. At the end he always adds another detail. Ann Arbor was just a short train ride away from Detroit. Berenson and his buddies got to ride up and watch the Red Wings play in the old Olympia Arena.
The two cities have always been linked. Sharing this short distance is part of the beauty. Getting to the big events, wherever they are, is manageable. Ann Arbor is as much of a part of Metro Detroit as Auburn Hills or Pontiac.
So what’s wrong with the Winter Classic in the Big House?
There’s a vocal segment who feels like the game has been stolen away from Detroit in the name of the dollar signs flashing in Gary Bettman’s pupils. Mike Illitch wanted the game in his ballpark, in front of fans of both his teams. I get that.
But for everyone that isn’t Mike Illitch (i.e., you and me) it’s a little harder to comprehend.
“It would have been a chance to showcase Detroit and to help the city out.”
Look at the past decade. Detroit has hosted a Super Bowl, Final Four, Frozen Four, Baseball All-Star Game, two World Series games, 10 games in the Stanley Cup Finals, two Super Bowl ads and (if you want to include Auburn Hills as part of Detroit) six games in the NBA Finals.
Detroit has been showcased enough. Judging by Clint Eastwood’s statements, the city is still hurting. “All that matter is what’s ahead. How do we come from behind? How do we come together?”
Maybe it’s time to stop looking to sporting events to provide a one-time revenue boost and act like that’s somehow progress. When Detroit “comes back” it won’t have anything to do with sports. It will be bigger than that.
The Winter Classic is about putting on a spectacle. Instead of confining it to one city, the NHL has given the whole side of the state a chance to take part in it. That’s how it should be. Face it. A significant chunk of the residents of “Hockey Town” are from Grosse Pointe and Livonia and Farmington, not Detroit. Minnesota is the State of Hockey. The State of Michigan is Hockey Town.
The Red Wings aren’t Detroit’s team. They’re Michigan’s. U of M and MSU divide the State. Those up in Escanaba and Iron Mountain are Packers fans instead of Lions fans. The state rallies around the other three during playoff times. For 21 years, the Red Wings have been the only constant.
Yes, the NHL wasn’t thinking about this. All it wanted was the money and the headlines. But they unintentionally gave the state an opportunity at history that wouldn’t be there had the Winter Classic been at Comerica Park. The Ontarioites will help with the attendance record, but Toronto is still five hours away. This game belongs to Michigan.
The state has a chance to make this more than just another outdoor hockey game. Comerica Park can’t top the scenery of Fenway Park or Wrigley Field. Instead the 2013 edition being lumped in with the Classics at Heinz Field and Citizens Bank Park, Michigan has the chance jolt the NHL’s premiere event out of it’s malaise. (The 2012 game had the worst TV ratings in the event’s short history.)
This has a chance to be best Winter Classic ever. It can set the World Record for a hockey game. And unless the league decides to put an ice rink in a NASCAR stadium or North Korea, Michigan can do something that will never be topped.
It’s an opportunity to let the world hear the roar of our crowd, of our state, of our engines.
Isn’t that what Clint Eastwood was talking about anway?