Michigan Stadium – “The Big House” – is an enormous arena. When filled on a Saturday afternoon for a football game, it takes on a life of its own. It pulses with fans coming out of their seats as a big play unfolds. It takes on the bright colors of maize-and-blue clad fans cheering for the team representing the University of Michigan. But most of all, there is the sound. When more than 100,000 voices cheer as one, the Big House opens to the sky in a full-throated roar that might be heard all the way to Canada.
And when The Big House stands empty, the silence is just as profound.
On January 1, 2013, The Big House should have been filled with fans in Red Wings red and Maple Leaf blue cheering the teams as they skated in the climax of what promised to be, as Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard put it on Friday, “the granddaddy of the Winter Classics.” A festival that would have bridged the 45 miles from Detroit to Ann Arbor would have provided fans with as much hockey as you could fit into a fortnight. From December 15th through New Year’s Day, amateur hockey games (including an Ontario Hockey League doubleheader), free skates, the Great Lakes Invitational tournament featuring four college teams, an American Hockey League game featuring the affiliates of the Wings and Leafs, not one, but two alumni games because so many alumni of the teams wanted to be a part of this. Then there were the outings, signing sessions, exhibits, and other events surrounding the festival.
Yesterday, the National Hockey League cancelled the 2013 Winter Classic. It, and the Winter Festival accompanying it, will be played and held eventually (no dates have been set, a nod to the fact there is still no new labor deal in place). Many of the games and events have been rescheduled and relocated, the Great Lakes Invitational, for example, to be played at its traditional venue – Joe Louis Arena – instead of on a rink at Comerica Park. The Ontario Hockey League and AHL games will be moved to indoor venues.
It would have been spectacular, though. It would have turbocharged the momentum the league has had since coming out of its last lockout in 2005. But on the eve of what would have been an event that in some ways might have eclipsed even the Stanley Cup tournament as a means to show sports fans all that makes hockey great, the league pulled the plug to make this celebration the latest casualty in the ongoing stalemate with the players association over a new labor agreement.
The National Hockey League has nothing if not a ghastly sense of timing. In 1994 the New York Rangers ended a 54-year drought without a Stanley Cup by winning a seven-game final against the Vancouver Canucks. Led by Mark Messier – a player whose picture appears under the definition of “leader” in the dictionary – the Rangers captivated New York City, but they also served to propel hockey to the forefront of American sports in the spring. Long a niche sport confined to winter climates, the Rangers had the talent and the moxie to win over casual sports fans to hockey. It was an opportunity for the NHL to take an equal place among the major team sports in North America.
And how did the league take advantage of the opportunity? The league and the players could not come to any agreement on a new labor deal, and the players were locked out to start the following season. Instead of building on the momentum of the Rangers’ exciting spring of 1994, the NHL lost 468 games – almost half of the 1994-1995 season – to the lockout. A season that should have started in October did not start until January 20, 1995. San Jose lost an all-star game (they would host another in 1997).
It had all the looks of a lost opportunity. It was a case of self-inflicted misfortune. It was ghastly timing.
And here we are again. Hockey in Hockeytown. Hockey in the largest venue for the sport on the planet. From dawn ‘til dusk – and after – in the Holiday season hockey fans could eat, breathe, and live the sport. Fans not familiar with the sport could make their acquaintance and get to know what it is about hockey that makes its fans as rabid and devoted as they are to the sport. Two cities hurting in an uncertain economy could have life breathed into their communities.
But again, a lost opportunity. Self-inflicted misfortune. Ghastly timing.
The games will be played…elsewhere. The events will be held…eventually. Maybe on New Year’s Day 2014, maybe not. But will those games and those events have the same unbridled joy attached to them, whenever they are held, after enduring the frustration and the ill-will that hangs heavily over the lingering labor dispute?
In the end what we are left with is The Big House at the corner of South Main Street and Stadium Boulevard in Ann Arbor. On New Year’s Day it will stand open to the sky, empty.
A silent scream at an opportunity lost.