It was the day after Christmas and the journey that I had been looking forward to for seven months was about to begin. I was on the way to Detroit, Michigan to take part in the Hockeytown Winter Festival and the Winter Classic. I was ready for the trip that any hockey fan, including my good friend Patten Fuqua of The Predatorial, would love to experience.
Nashville was chilly as my dad drove me to the airport, but nothing like what was forecasted for the next week in Michigan. After arriving at BNA quite early, I noticed several passengers waiting for the same flight decked out in University of Michigan and Red Wings gear. It’s amazing how small of a town Nashville can be, as during my flight, I met someone with a mutual friend in the hockey community and we were able to talk hockey the entire flight.
We landed in Detroit with a slight breeze and flurries flying. I was here. I had arrived. The adrenaline already began to pump. Before checking in to my hotel, I took a quick trip to Canada to visit family and grab a quick bite, because what’s a vacation without food, right? I make my way back across the border where the U.S. Customs Officer actually struck up a conversation about hockey with me. It was a very slow night at the border.
After checking in at the hotel, I quickly hooked up my Xbox 360 and played some NHL 14 while awaiting for Patten’s flight to arrive…after midnight. I also quickly discovered that the hotel had the NHL Network, so I’d be able to watch the IIHF World Junior Championships. After picking up Patten from the airport, we were both hungry and the only thing open was the McDonald’s across the street from the hotel. They served a limited menu, as Patten enjoyed a sausage and egg McMuffin with fries. We finally get to sleep around 2am, awaiting day one of the Great Lakes Invitational.
We stopped by a hockey-fan favorite, Tim Hortons, for some breakfast and made our way to downtown Detroit. Arriving at Comerica Park very early (they were still setting up), we briefly walked through the mobile NHL Hockey Hall of Fame exhibit which featured trophies and memorabilia from the olden days. We then ventured over to the Hockeytown Cafe for a quick lunch where we both enjoyed a seasonal Michigan beverage and Hockeytown “Red Wings.” A little bit of Nashville was also represented in the cafe as Michigan native, David Legwand, played AAA hockey in the Detroit area. The Fan Zone was set up by the time we finished lunch and we loaded up on freebies, including pictures from Fox Sports Detroit and more. The Fan Zone included a street hockey rink, synthetic ice rink for public skates, campfires for making s’mores, live music and so much more.
Game time finally arrived for the first game of the 49th Annual Great Lakes Invitational (GLI), with Michigan State taking on Michigan Tech. The game was an exciting one, with both teams creating multiple momentum swings. The fans were alive as pep bands played from both State and Tech. Of note on the Michigan State team would be Dean Chelios and Jake Chelios, sons of Hall of Famer Chris Chelios. Also playing for Michigan State is MacKenzie MacEachern, a 2012 3rd Round draft pick of the St. Louis Blues. I was able to interview him following the game to get his thoughts on the experience.
One thing I did notice is that the Michigan Tech fans were full of “you suck” chants throughout the game, reminding me of Bridgestone Arena. After controlling much of the game, Michigan Tech wasn’t able to stop a Michigan State comeback to tie the game and we witnessed overtime. After an overtime period that did not decide a winner, the game then went to a shootout. Although the game went down as a tie for the official record, the shootout was needed to decide the team that would advance to the final of the tournament. It took two extra rounds (for five total) of the shootout for Michigan Tech to come up with the victory, 3-2. You can view the Michigan State post game press conference and the Michigan Tech presser with coaches and players on our YouTube channel.
The second game of the GLI was one that I had been looking forward to for quite some time. I had never been able to see the Michigan Wolverines hockey team play in person and they took on Western Michigan in game two. Of note for Michigan is JT Compher, someone we spoke with last year when he was still with the United States National Team Development Program, and now a prospect of the Buffalo Sabres. Chase Balisy, of Western Michigan, is a Nashville Predators prospect and you can watch his post game interview.
It wasn’t until the second period when we finally witnessed some goals as Western Michigan went into the second intermission with a 2-1 lead. The lone goal for the Wolverines was from our noted player, JT Compher. Michigan finally tied it off a beautiful wrister from the top of the face-off circle after he picked up a loose puck in the neutral zone. In what was becoming the norm for GLI games, neither team was able to win in regulation, so the game went to overtime. After a boarding penalty against Michigan, Western Michigan’s Josh Pitt fired a shot past goaltender Zach Nagelvort to win it in overtime.
Overall, the first full day of this journey was sensory overload and it will only continue from there as I experience ten total outdoor games in six days.