Snowy conditions could affect Winter Classic on ice and in stands

ANN ARBOR, Mich. - Bring on the snow at the Winter Classic.

That's the message from the NHL, Toronto Maple Leafs, Detroit Red Wings and Weather Channel meteorologist Jim Cantore as five to 10 centimetres of snow are expected to fall on Michigan Stadium on Wednesday before and during the game. The league says it's prepared.

"We're getting hourly reports as we always do," NHL chief operating officer John Collins said Tuesday. "A little bit of snow just adds to the romance of the game. Guys are set up for that. Right now it looks like it's going to be an on-time start."

Picturesque conditions at the inaugural Winter Classic in Buffalo in 2008 helped add to the magic when Sidney Crosby scored the shootout winner to help the Pittsburgh Penguins beat the Sabres. The success of that event, even with some ice-condition issues, sparked the popularity of outdoor hockey games to the point that the league is holding six of them this season.

Ice specialist Dan Craig and his crew have perfected techniques in that area over the past six years, and players who practised outdoors Tuesday raved about the conditions. But snow could have a significant impact on the game and the anticipated record crowd of 100,000-plus who are expected to be in attendance.

Collins estimated that 40,000 of the 105,500 tickets the league sold for this Winter Classic were purchased by Ontario residents. Because of that and more, the NHL would like to keep this a 1 p.m. start.

"People are travelling in for the game, maybe they're here already, maybe they came in (Monday) night, maybe they're just coming in for the game," Collins said. "But we know people are going to want to try to get home. That's part of the whole thing. It's a family event. As great as it looks under the lights, and it looked great in Heinz Field, it's kind of a family event, which pushes it into that 1 o'clock window."

That 2011 Winter Classic at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh between the Penguins and Washington Capitals was moved back to 8 p.m. because of rain. Collins said the league has the "flexibility" to change the start time this year but would prefer not to do that.

The amount of snow and when it falls could affect those plans.

"We're going to have kind of a long duration light snow event in which the heaviest of it is probably going to be during the game, so we could see a couple of inches," Cantore said. "It doesn't take long — five minutes and you're going to get a dusting. That obviously slows down the game. It makes the puck a little bit harder to move around."

Snow isn't part of a normal hockey game, so players know this won't be close to normal.

"You have to keep it really simple if the wind and the snow starts coming down," said Leafs forward James van Riemsdyk, who will be playing in his third Winter Classic. "That's something you kind of adjust to when you're out there a little bit and see what the weather brings."

What the weather will bring is still a matter of some question. The forecast until Tuesday was for no snow or perhaps flurries, and it fluctuated throughout Wednesday's practice day at the "Big House."

Snow was expected to start after midnight and continue through the early-afternoon hours.

The NHL can monitor the situation, and Craig said director of hockey operations Colin Campbell will be in constant communication with on-ice officials about maintaining the ice in the event of snow.

"We always do shovelling during TV timeouts," Craig said. "(Campbell and officials) will determine when we go out, if we have to go out. We have 10 guys on skates, two guys shovelling snow off the other end and we’ll be done in two minutes."

Coaches prefer control, but Randy Carlyle of the Leafs and Mike Babcock of the Red Wings know they have no way of affecting the weather. That's why Babcock said he had "no concern" about possible snow, something Carlyle agreed with.

"I don't think it's going to change that much as far as the people that are in place have done this before," Carlyle said. "They'll make sure the ice surface is cleaned effectively. ... I have to make sure these players are prepared to play when the puck drops."

If the puck drops amid snow flakes, the dynamics of the game could change.

"If it starts snowing, you simplify the game even more," said Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf, who signed a US$49-million, seven-year deal that was announced Tuesday. "I think shoot from everywhere and chip pucks. I think if it snows too much, I don't know if we can actually play the game, so hopefully it doesn't snow too much. If it snows a lot, it's going to be tough to play through that."

Added Leafs winger Phil Kessel: "I think the puck won't slide as well, obviously. But who knows, right? I have no clue."

There is some element of the unknown, but for players like many on the Red Wings who have taken part in a Winter Classic before, there's a bigger concern than snow: the wind. The league has a contingency plan that includes switching ends at the 10-minute mark of the third period — and then at 2:30 of overtime, if necessary — if the wind creates an advantage at one end or the other.

"You can definitely tell the difference when you're skating into the wind," Detroit forward Justin Abdelkader said. "It's going to play a factor, but both teams have to play through it."

For fans, it's a situation not quite created equally. Many of those who will fill up Michigan Stadium aren't familiar with roads around Ann Arbor and could experience some issues as the snow piles up.

Gates are set to open at 10 a.m., three hours before game time. That was done in part because of the University of Michigan's no bag policy, but it could also help ease traffic concerns.

Cantore expressed more worry about fans after the game than before.

"It's going to be a little slippery to get home," he said. "But you know what, this is Michigan, these are Canadians. You guys know how to drive in this stuff."

And fans should know how to deal with frigid temperatures, too. It's expected to be -9 C during the game, which would make this the coldest Winter Classic to date.

"Hopefully it's not too cold because I think the fans will be freezing because it was chilly," Kessel said.

Cold is ideal for an event like this. And Collins figures that a little bit of snow just adds to the "romance" of the game, something Babcock can't argue with.

"It adds to the atmosphere," Babcock said. "It adds to the memory."

Cantore, who will be providing on-air updates on NBC, expressed excitement about the possibility of snow during this Winter Classic.

"If you're a fan or you're a player, I think everybody's pretty much going to agree: When it's snowing outside and you kind of create that snow globe effect, you really can't get or ask for more than that," Cantore said. "There's going to be a point where the fans are going to be screaming and you're going to wonder, 'Are they screaming for the hockey or are they screaming because the weather's so awesome out here?'"

The NHL would be happy with both.

— Follow Stephen Whyno on Twitter at @SWhyno