On Jan. 1, the Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings played an outdoor hockey game during a blizzard at Michigan Stadium.
Because nothing monumental was at stake for the Red Wings – it was just another contest on a schedule with 82 of them – fans couldn’t have been blamed for arriving late, or leaving early, or staying home.
But the fans roughed it and toughed it through overtime and then a shootout, and even though the Red Wings lost, the enduring memory of the day was how much fun everybody had. Despite conditions that left passes short and made stick-handling difficult, the players had as much fun as the crowd did.
Oh, yeah, the crowd: 105,491 spectators showed up. It can be difficult to follow a puck on a fresh sheet of ice illuminated by bright arena lights. From the 40th row of a football stadium, during a blizzard, following the puck had to be impossible.
But the game went on, and the sport was exposed to an audience of television viewers unfamiliar with hockey but captivated by the snowstorm. The NHL owes one to Mother Nature.
I am recalling that New Year’s Day hockey game amid fears Super Bowl XLVIII will be affected – ruined, even – by the kind of inclement weather that occasionally visits New Jersey in early February.
Even though football is an outdoor sport, even though football at an elite level requires the most rugged of athletes to ignore distractions beyond their control, I keep hearing the Super Bowl is too important to be held under any conditions but optimum.
And yet many playoff games that determined the participants of previous Super Bowls were played in weather that can only be called fierce, and some of those games qualified as classics. The 1967 NFL title game in Green Bay, where the temperature at kickoff was 15 degrees below zero, permanently carved Vince Lombardi’s legend in ice.
Trailing the Cowboys, 17-14, with 16 seconds showing on the clock, Lombardi decided to try for a touchdown on a third-and-goal from the 1, not really relishing the idea of having to kick a field goal on fourth down to force overtime.
“Run it,” Lombardi told quarterback Bart Starr during the Packers’ third and final time out, “and let’s get the hell out of here.”
The gamble, especially on a slippery field, paid off with a winning touchdown on a sneak by Starr.
The “Tuck Rule” divisional playoff game at New England, where the 2001 Patriots benefited from a disputed interpretation of an obscure rule and won in overtime, is prominent on any list of Greatest Football Games of the 21st Century. The heavy snow that hampered both teams was merely a subplot, one of many.
Here’s what I don’t understand: Enduring harsh winter weather is considered a foundation of the gladiator mentality associated with champions, and yet when it’s time for the actual championship game, everybody turns meek.
Arranging for a Feb. 2 championship game to be played outdoors, in New Jersey, was not a mistake by the NFL. The mistake was making worst-scenario plans to postpone the game in case of a major winter storm.
It might snow during Super Bowl XLVIII, but chances are it won’t. A brutal cold front might happen upon the Northeast; again, chances are it won’t. (During the past seven Super Bowls, no snow has fallen in metropolitan New York City, and the temperature has not dipped below 24 degrees.)
But the story line will persist about the possibility of bad weather spoiling the Super Bowl. It will persist because there’s still a week to kill before the Seahawks take on the Broncos, and how do you kill a week without beating some stories to death?
I’m weather-watch stormed out. Then again, I’m also Richard Sherman-Michael Crabtreed out. Poor Richard. He met reporters last Wednesday and addressed that sideline rant with his typically nuanced combination of insight and humor: sincere reflections spiced with some edgy observation.
The league’s premier cornerback is also its best interview on a podium – the best I’ve ever heard, in any sport, and I’ve been jotting down quotes from athletes for more than 40 years. But the questions he gracefully answered the other day will be posed this week during three media-availability sessions between Tuesday and Thursday, and the prospect of finding 101 more ways to explain a 10-second sound bite finds me wincing.
Peyton Manning’s attempt to collect a second Super Bowl ring is another story I wish would vanish. There’s a difference between none and one, and the difference is substantial.
“I’ve never been to Spain,” for instance, is not a particularly interesting remark, but it’s much more interesting than “I’ve been to Spain, but only once.”
Manning owns one Super Bowl ring, and his brother Eli, the New York Giants’ quarterback, has two. I’m not sure if anything about that bothers Peyton Manning, and I’m definitely sure it doesn’t bother me. But the questions Manning will take about a postseason career being mediocre compared with his regular-season achievements? Those will bother me.
Finally, there’s the Seahawks’ Pete Carroll, who served as the New York Jets’ coach in 1994. He’ll be asked to share recollections of that desultory 6-10 season, and about returning to the scene of his first public flop.
Carroll will hear the question, and he’ll try to ruminate on his one year as Jets coach – an inconsequential detour on a career path that brought him to the Seahawks after stints at Arkansas, Iowa State, Ohio State, North Carolina State, the University of the Pacific, the Buffalo Bills, the Minnesota Vikings, the San Francisco 49ers, the New England Patriots and USC.
The prospect of probing Carroll’s single season as Jets coach is enough for me to wonder – yikes – about the weather.
“The weather is going to be good,” Carroll promised Friday. “It’s going to be clear and cold. It’s going to be nice.”
Even if it isn’t.