The Longest Windiest Winter (Classic)

Of the thirty-one years I’ve spent on this Earth, I believe this year has been the longest, coldest, snowiest, stormiest winter I’ve experienced. In many regards, this is not just a subjective hunch of mine, but an objective, measurable fact. The winter of 2013-14 was quite a bear to make my way through, and even more so because I walked to work every single morning through the frigid, frosty winter wonderland of Lowell. Because of a streak of bad luck with a pair of Ford Tauruses (Tauri? Taura? Taurs?), both of which ending up totaled after all of the repairs added up, Amy and I found that we were once again a one car family. She had been working in Kentwood, which is much too hefty of a walk, so I ended up putting more miles on my feet than any other season I can remember.

There is a widely spread myth that languages in the Eskimo-Aleut (Eskaleut) family have hundreds of words that they use to describe snow. Even if this is not the case, I could understand why it would be so. Every morning I walked to work – and the amount of snowy days I walked to work had to be nearly 100 – was a different situation. I remember embankments of snow pushed together by plows. (I like big buttes and I cannot lie…) I remember when the Huntington Bank near my apartment turned its overflow parking lot into a 30 foot high snow dump simply because there was nowhere else to put the snow from the main lot. Children would play atop the piles with the same vim and vigor they exhibited when they played on the toxic sandbag sand disposed by the city in a grassy green field down the road from my apartment after the flood of 2013. I remember shoveled sidewalks protected by a four-foot wall of snow on either side. I remember even more sidewalks that weren’t shoveled. At one point there was word that Governor Snyder was warning people not to even go outside to shovel your sidewalk because of how dangerous the cold had been, but there were still those who got up and scraped out a path for me every morning by 6:15 AM. There were times when I had hiked in knee-deep snow for so long that when I got to a patch of shoveled sidewalk I nearly cried, vowing to someday buy a gift basket for those who put in the effort to make my commute easier.

Making my way through the heavy snow made my legs stronger, and I finally felt like I might be able to keep up with my fiancee Amy the next time she decided she wanted to take a summer hike to through Fallasburg Park. It was the ice that was the real menace. What you don’t realize when you drive to work in the winter is that the roads are always, with no exception, in better condition than the sidewalks, and it makes sense because the nation depends on the transportation of goods and automobile slip-and-falls can be much more deadly than pedestrian slip-and-falls. I remember one day when everything was covered in ice. I had traversed carefully across the ice for about a mile before this indescribable terror set in – I had spend so much energy keeping my balance, but that energy was running out. At one point, I stepped on someone’s driveway and, like Gumbi on some invisible skateboard, just kept slipping until I was across it. I didn’t fall that day, but I can remember two times when I did. The first time I exercised every precaution, planned every step, and still managed to fall flat on my back my first step off of my porch. The second time was when, like Moses, I glimpsed my final destination – Litehouse, the promised land of my morning walk – only to plummet to the ground the first moment my foot touched the parking lot, backpack and all. There was ice like a glaze or candy coating on the snow, ice with water underneath it that bubble-danced about as you stepped on it like coy in a pond, and sometimes I even became part of the ice. I could always tell when the temperature was circling around ten below freezing, because my eyelashes would begin to freeze together.

In the break room coworkers would say that they saw me in the flurries and morning winter storms as they drove in to work. Soon they began to pity me, offering me rides, and eventually I put my pride aside and let an electrician named Eric drive me home. But when those same people talked about how terrible it must be to have to make that walk every morning, I must have seemed like such a stereotypical “manly man.” I’d say something like, “Nah. That walk was nothing. You should have been at the Winter Classic.”

Photo Jan 01, 11 12 20 AM

The Big House as viewed from our seats before the Winter Classic.

The NHL Winter Classic is a tradition established in 2008 where two professional hockey teams, usually teams from the North and usually on or around New Years Day, match up in order to play an old time outdoors hockey game. This year I spent the first day of the year with my good friend Tom watching the Detroit Red Wings take on the Toronto Maple Leafs, two teams with a decent potential to underachieve their way out of a playoff spot, at the Big House in Ann Arbor. A friend at work would later express how awesome it must have been to see Detroit greats like Gordie Howe and Steve Yzerman, but we didn’t end up seeing them. The alumni game, which usually precedes the Winter Classic, was held on the previous day in Detroit, making it much harder to attend both events.

While I was born and raised in Michigan, people who know me might have wondered why I even went to the 2014 Winter Classic. As a Dallas Stars fan, I really didn’t have a dog in the race, and while I love hockey it is the other Tiemeyer brother that people usually associate with the sport. My buddy Tom was a Wings fan, so his attendance made sense. Amy had been a Leafs fan ever since she first saw players like Tyler Bozak and Jonas Gustavsson while watching a Stars/Maple Leafs game on NHL GameCenter, but she had decided to step back and give me some bro time with Tom. I was excited to be a part of such a big hockey event. I had once attended a Red Wings/Stars game in which Detroit broke the record for most consecutive wins on home ice in a season, but this Winter Classic was expected to break an even bigger record. According to ticket sales, it was boasted that this would be the most highly attended hockey game in the history of the NHL.

One of the cuter pre-departure photos I took. That's Tom on the left and me on the right.

One of the cuter pre-departure photos we took. That’s Tom on the left and me on the right.

While January 1 was the day I would be part of hockey history, it was also my first day of documenting as much of 2014 with my camera as humanly possible. I am looking forward to getting married to Amy in September and I want my family – Amy and all of our little potential kids – to have access to the events that preceded our marital fusion. To this end I took photos of pre-departure, pictures on the road, pictures of everything I could. As we were walking up to the stadium, surrounded by a sea of red (Wings) and blue (Leafs), it became more and more painful to take off my gloves and capture the moment with my camera phone. This was the first sign of the trouble to come.

The Ascent, or, In Which We Realized it was Too Cold to Take Pictures Anymore

The Ascent, or, In Which We Realized it was Too Cold to Take Pictures Anymore

In our excitement, we arrived in Ann Arbor over two hours early for the game, which gave us the time to walk around the Big House more times than we would have liked. The first lap was to check out what was going on in and around the stadium. Every subsequent lap was an attempt to keep our bodies from freezing in place, never to be thawed again. We encountered some interesting things on our adventure in the cold. There was a film crew from CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Company) that had gathered a crowd of Wings and Leafs in a semi-circle to shoot an adversarial promo for the event, there was a giant Bridgestone Winter Classic billboard that we took the time to pose in front of, and best of all, a generic hot dog that ended up being my favorite dog ever simply because it injected a little bit of heat back into my body. First, my extremities had gone numbed, and then the wave of cold had encroached upon my core, so that little bit of stolen heat was like manna from heaven.

Tom of the Franzen Jersey and the heaven-sent hot dog

Tom of the Franzen Jersey and the heaven-sent hot dog

The snow had started falling as soon as we entered the stadium, so when we returned to our seats after the walk our collectible seat cushions were covered with powder. The game hadn’t even started and I colder than I had ever been, colder than the time I slipped down a snowy hill into an icy river in the back of an elementary school friend’s house, colder than at any Polar Bear camp out I had attended in the Boy Scouts, colder than I could imagine cold to be. This was a really big game for Tom and we had paid a lot of money for the tickets, but if Tom had asked my honest opinion at that very moment I would have told him that I wanted to go home before the players even hit the ice.

I didn’t ask Tom to take me home, and we still survived the experience. As more people started filing into their seats I started getting hopeful that they might share their warmth, but the heat didn’t seem to be able to survive the minute gap between one person and the next. My scarf kept slipping from my face, revealing my bare skin to the elements. At one point, I took a big risk, unraveled my scarf, and re-applied it tightly over my neck and face, but it had turned around in the process making my neck wet and cold from the ice that had formed on the fabric. My thoughts drifted to the emergency medical stations established throughout the stadium and how warm they must be inside. If I could just walk over to one, perhaps things would be better. But I couldn’t leave Tom on such a big day. I just couldn’t. To this day, I wonder how many people ended up needing medical attention at the most attended game in hockey history. I would gird myself against the elements and tell myself that I could make it, but then I would see someone wipe snow off of a seat cushion with their bare fingers and something deep inside me would scream – THIS IS DEATH!

The Wings and the Leafs were pretty balanced that day on the ice. Neither team ever got more than one point ahead of the other. Though I estimated more Leafs fans in the bleachers, the audience of the game was fairly balanced as well. Many of the Wings fans were acting like frat boys and being really inhospitable to their rivals from across the lake, but after a while that feeling of Canadian friendliness began to take over. One of the most powerful moments I can remember was when the chants of opposing fans began to weave together like verse and chorus of the same song: “Let’s go, Red Wings. Go Leafs, Go. Let’s go, Red Wings. Go, Leafs, Go.

But that was merely an interlude in the burning coldness that lead to complete numbness. At one point I remember feeling like a huge block of ice had formed within my boot. I’d try to move my toes and push it away from my flesh, but it wouldn’t budge. Later, when we got to the heat of Tom’s car I would come to understand that the block of ice was the outer layers of my own foot as perceived by the portions that still had some feeling left in them. During both the first and second intermission, we escaped to the refreshments stand in order to pick up expensive hot chocolates. Tom cradled his in his hand for a long time, sipping and enjoying the feeling of the hot cup on his cold fingers while I gulped down my drink, hoping that the spark on the inside of me would re-ignite the fire in the rest of my body.

When we returned to our seats and I felt just as cold as I had before the hot chocolate, I started having a guilty thought. I knew I was supposed to be rooting for the Red Wings – after all, that was Tom’s favorite team, and the guy had just driven me across the state and I’d gotten into the event with a ticket that I hadn’t even paid him back for – but in honesty my one hope was that the teams were not tied at the end of regulation. I didn’t want to sit through overtime. I didn’t want to sit through a shootout. I wanted to leave as soon as possible. When Amy’s favorite player Tyler Bozak scored the goal that put Toronto ahead, I cheered on the inside while grieving with Tom on the outside, but when Michigan native Justin Abdelkader tied it back up I did the reverse. The game went into a scoreless round of overtime before Bozak struck again and won the game for Toronto.

I may have seemed like Mr. Endurance to the people at my work who shivered from just walking from their car to the entrance, but if they had heard me complain for hours like a little child I am certain they would have thought differently of me. As it was, I gained something much more valuable from the Winter Classic than Tom did. When Tom got back behind the wheel of his car he was forced to sit for hours in post-Winter Classic Ann Arbor traffic while thinking about how the Toronto Maple Leafs spoiled this momentous occasion for him. Amy had been watching the game from her parents’ warm living room on NBC and when she sent the inevitable text gloating about how her boy Bozak brought ruin to Tom’s Red Wings, I wished that I could have seen the cellular signal as it zipped across the state and intercepted the communication. I just couldn’t see more sorrow befall my buddy. Tom gained an experience that his friends couldn’t claim, but he also gained his fair share of sadness and remorse. As for me, I gained confidence in the resilience of my own body that would last me years.

As I prepared my life for the wife and children that seemed to be barreling straight for me, neither stopping to rest nor waiting for me to be ready, I imagined a day when I would take my children on a winter hike through the woods. I would be leading the pack, and they would be dragging their feet saying things like, “Can we go home yet?”, “I’m hungry,” or “I HAVE TO PEE!” It would be sunny outside without so much as a breeze and they would start complaining about how cold they were. I would stop, turn around, and I would say, confidently, like the crotchety old man I already feel myself transforming into, “You think this is cold? Let me tell you a story about when me and your Uncle Tom went to the Winter Classic in ’14.”

And the story wouldn’t end there, because this blog isn’t called The Longest Wind for nothing.

Tom and I were captured on the official HD Panorama. Don't we look excited to be out in the cold!

Tom and I were captured on the official HD Panorama. Don’t we look excited to be out in the cold!

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