A Trip To Michigan: Part 1

The Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs spent this past week celebrating the game of hockey in the best way they saw fit; by taking the sport back to its roots and playing a bunch of games outdoors. Representing The Leafs Nation for a few days, and Pension Plan Puppets for another, I made my way and crossed the border for a few days to see what the fuss was about. The following is part one of several posts detailing my trip.

Monday, December 30th

It’s 6AM, and I’m wide awake. Knowing I’m being driven there but taking the back, I try to pack lightly, but with three days of work and a self-run operation I still have nearly fill a messenger bag and a large luggage suitcase. Inside and on my body are as follows:

  • Three vastly different pairs of pants (dark blue jeans, red and black chinos)
  • Three identical v-neck sweaters (red, blue, and grey)
  • One white pinstriped button up shirt (of a brand that I couldn’t afford to buy at a non-thrift shop)
  • An Old Navy Peacoat (TERRIBLE IDEA. Looks nice, isn’t suited to -10 and below at all)
  • My Shut Up Jeffler sweater and an OVO long sleeve tee (gotta rep something when I’m not in a traditional setting)
  • A bunch of undershirts, socks, and underwear (because sweat sucks and being warm is preferable)
  • A wallet with no cash, but rather a VISA debit card (highly reccomended), and identification
  • My grossly out of date (by picture, not expiration) passport
  • Three notepads in case I needed to take notes at any point
  • A container of powerade zero water mixer (incase of alcohol recovery)
  • Four cans of Red Bull (because sleep is overrated)
  • A voice recorder in case my phone died at any point
  • A pair of bluetooth earbuds to keep myself entertained on the way back to Toronto
  • My ever-so-trusty, somewhat heavy, workhorse of a laptop
  • A cheap point and shoot camera with a nice zoom (which took 70% of the photos in these posts)
  • A tripod that worked with both my camera and my phones (and also never got used on this trip)
  • Two cell phones (my Samsung Galaxy Note 3, which does everything under the sun and is also my go-to video recorder, and a Galaxy S3, which I use for tethering and as a contingency plan if anything happens to the Note)

At this point, I just want to give my only plug of this series; a huge thank you is in order to Telus for powering this trip. I didn’t miss a  They’re awesome. If you’re going across the border, be smart and get a roaming pass. Dropping $60 will keep you from worrying if you ever see this:

Plus, you get to keep using Twitter and your email and all that fun stuff while you’re state side. Moving on. Today’s mission was to head to the first of three games I was covering, the Toronto Marlies vs. Grand Rapid Griffins game at Comerica Park. Adam, a friend of mine who has begun to cover the Marlies on his own time this season, pulls into my driveway at around 7:00 AM, and, after picking up breakfast, we head towards a foreign land.

We made pretty good time over the course of the trip. As you can imagine, not a ton of people are filing into Michigan on a Monday morning. Those that are super devoted headed across to catch the Great Lakes Invitational and OHL game, others came down the next day, or heaven forbid, on Wednesday. So we had an empty and open road.

Occasionally, this road was quite boring:

Really, the only thing that kept us sane for the first few hours was a playlist of really loud pop music and EA Sports NHL soundtrack classics. Before we crossed the border, we stopped into an OnRoute in Tilbury to fill up on gas and stop into the washroom. While there, we ran into pockets of people in Leafs jerseys, and this RealSports pop-up shop, that apparently most of the OnRoute’s had along the way:

It’s a genius move, really. The team gets to sell extra merch to those who may have forgot to bring some (and get a higher cut since it’s done through the MLSE-owned retail outlet), and promote the week to the, like, four Michigan-bound people who weren’t aware.

Eventually, we pass through Windsor and get to the border, where they welcome us with no hesitation.

A few minutes after crossing, we got to Comerica Park and made our way in. This is the first outdoor baseball stadium I’ve ever been to, and only my second period (the Rogers Centre being the other). Needless to say, it was an impressive facility.

Honestly, I can see why Red Wings owner Mike Illitch wanted to host the entire week here. It’s gorgeous looking, has a ton of unique views, and shows much of the nicer parts of Downtown Detroit. The tradeoff, of course, was the maximum capacity being about 40% of Michigan Stadium. I had but two complaints. The first was something they couldn’t control, which was a lack of snow until the big day. Their solution? ROLLS OF FOAM!

It’s both the lamest and most ingenius thing I’ve ever seen. Before the anthems, they also pumped fake snow into the sky for additional effect. Before that though, it was lunch time! …this cost $10:

Minus the hard boiled eggs, which were my addition. That was a press box price, not a fan price too! That concept to me was absurd; Ricoh Coliseum has always been great about giving the media free catered food (this weekend was Pasta & Sausage, and Souvlaki & Potatoes), and the Air Canada Centre at the very least provides Free Pizza. Thankfully, I also sneaked in a salmon sushi boat I bought the night before, and drank enough Diet Mountain Dew to feel bloated.

At this point, we’re still a few hours away from puck drop, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have something to watch! The Leafs and Wings Alumni teams come out for practice, and boy, it really begins to hit you what exactly you’re in store for the next few days.

It was like watching my childhood flash before my eyes, in a massive baseball stadium in front of nobody else. After all, this was just practice in anticipation of the actual game the next day. Eventually, the two sides finished their skate, the zambonis hit the ice, and the fans trickled in for the night’s main event.

Unfortunately, there wasn’t that many fans who made that trickle. Of the 45,000 seats in this stadium, just 20,000 were sold for the night, and maybe two thirds of that actually made it through the ticket gate. But it was a heck of a sight, especially from ice level.

I even had the chance to snag a quick selfie before I headed back upstairs, where my hands would quickly be in absurd pain from the sudden re-warmth. From there, the anthems were about to start, and things were about to get under way.

The game itself? It was an interesting one, for sure. Kevin Marshall scored his first goal of the year about a minute in. Carter Ashton (1G 1A), Spencer Abbott (2A), and TJ Brennan (1A) all were able to keep rounding out their point per game paces. Luke Glendening, who ended up getting called up to the Red Wings in time for the big game and was part of the 2011 "Big Chill" game as Michigan’s captain, scored a coule of goals to give his team a lead heading into the third, but Kenny Ryan’s effort tied the game up early in the third. Like four of five of the prior outdoor games that week, this one went to overtime, but it was the first to go the full distance into a shootout.

Spencer Abbott’s goal, though my picture isn’t what I hoped it would be, was all kinds of filthy, Making about fifteen dekes in fifteen inches of space to beat Thomas McCollum. A couple of saves by Drew MacIntyre, pared with a Greg McKegg insureance marker, and the game ended with the away team in blue and white claiming victory.

Amazingly, the game didn’t seem to be altered an excessive amount by the conditions. While you could see hesitance from both teams to attempt to pull away with a large lead, the ice was otherwise described by players as fantastic. A lack of snow, bright light (as the sun had set) or significant wind meant that the only X factor was the cold, which normalized a little bit as the game progressed.

The atmosphere inside the Marlies room was ecstatic. Despite realistically being a regular season matchup, pride is on the line when you’re under the spotlight, and with the "every game is a tryout" mantra being true, you definitely feel it when there’s more eyes to be trying out for. Not to mention that hockey is, after all, and entertainment product, so to show your best side when people are looking at you most to entertain is always fun.

Alas, there was only so much time to take it all in for the team, who’s bags were quickly packed. After all, they were facing the Griffins again, this time in Grand Rapids, the following night. They’d go on to win that one by a score of 3-1.

As for me? We headed to my hotel in nearby Dearborn, MI, and checked in. Adam didn’t want to head back to Toronto this late at night, so I exiled him to the couch in exchange for a ride back to Comerica in the morning.

Ladies, he’s single! From then on, I spent the rest of the night editing some photos, saying hello to a couple of friends who were also staying at the hotel, and then eventually falling asleep at around three or four in the morning, with a plan to be up again by nine. 

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