By JAMES COOK
---- — DETROIT — It was big, cavernous and cold.
And perhaps the memory of a lifetime.
Traverse City West and TC Central's experience at the Hockeytown Winter Festival was one that won't soon fade from 41 players' minds, let alone the coaches and parents.
The game played on a temporary outdoor rink on the infield of the Detroit Tigers' Comerica Park was part of the run-up to the Winter Classic match-up between the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs. But for those players and coaches, it was the headliner.
"You're looking around and you're seeing an outfield," TC Central senior forward Cam Givens said. "It's all a bit different. You look up and you're seeing the skyline of Detroit."
Both teams arrived early to watch a Red Wings public practice on the very same surface some three and a half hours earlier.
"We showed up early and the Wings were practicing, the kids got to take it all in, (Red Wings broadcaster and former NHL player) Mickey Redmond came in and talked to the boys," West coach Jeremy Rintala said. "So they had a chance to get used to the atmosphere. Once they got out there, they didn't feel nervous and excited. It was just a great experience. We feel really lucky to be a part of it."
Central and West players used the same visitor's stalls that Major League All-Stars have used.
"Just showing up there and walking out onto the ice rink," West sophomore goaltender Brendan Lacharite said. "Playing under the lights at Comerica Park, outside. It felt like another pond hockey game, except there's refs, so it's way more realistic.
"I felt honored to sit in a locker room where so many great players have been. Once we took everything in, it was game — focus and get ready."
Most players were used to pond hockey, but this was a little different in many ways.
The fans were fairly far away, as most chose to eschew front-row seats that had limited visibility due to the rink's height and instead sat near the top of the stadium's lower bowl.
"It truly felt like a pond hockey game because the fans were so far away," Central coach Chris Givens said. "It was like it was just the two teams and that was it."
Both teams elected to skip going back to their locker rooms during the second intermission because of their abbreviated experience in the comforts of the visitor's clubhouse the first time.
"They put skate guards on, which takes a couple minutes," Rintala said. "And then they walk to the opposing team's dressing room. We got it, the kids sat down, we said a few words, and next thing you know there's a guy knocking on our door telling us it's time to go out for the second period. ... Dealing with the cold was easier than doing so much walking in skates."
During the second intermission, Central's players stayed on the team bench — exposed to the elements of a cold Detroit afternoon where temperatures hovered in the upper 20s.
The rink extended lengthwise from first base to third base, allowing fans to sit in the infield seats to view the game.
"It's a lot different," Central senior forward Jordan Stevenson said. "In an indoor game, you feel the walls enclosed near you and you know the fans are right on top of you. I don't know how to say it, but you feel more free outside."
The game started at 3:44 p.m. and ended at 5:35 p.m. What was in between was an hour and 51 minutes of pure memories.
"It was cold, yeah, but it didn't really affect any of us as much as we probably thought it would," Stevenson said. "The conditions weren't bad. It was easy to breathe, easy to move, the ice was nice."
"Very cold," Cam Givens said after the game. "When the wind started kicking in and the sun went down, it was a pretty interesting experience. My toes are just starting to thaw out."
Both coaches had players get some of the experience — especially some of the Tigers-related viewing — out of the way right off the bat in order to later get them refocused on the game to come.
"It's a great experience for the kids," Chris Givens said. "To be walking around in areas of the ballpark that you're never going to get to otherwise. We were lucky enough to get the visiting team's clubhouse as our locker room. Sitting in there before the game, we were talking about the players who have been in there before. Checking out some of the Major League Baseball rules that are on the walls, the dress codes and stuff like that."
"Seeing behind the scenes down there was really awesome," Cam Givens said. "It was just an awesome experience. The visiting clubhouse was huge. It was pretty cool to think of some of the Major League guys who have sat in those stalls. It was really cool to just take it in for a couple minutes and then get your mind set for the game."