Monday, January 6, 2014

The Big Freeze at the Big House

In what’s becoming the greatest tradition of all time, we as a little group went to the Winter Classic this New Year’s Day in Ann Arbor, at Michigan Stadium, which has a small city come in and watch football from September through November every week or so (that’ll come in later). 

So, naturally we trekked out to Detroit to spend New Year’s Eve in the big D (and leave town
before they shut off the lights).  After getting sufficiently inebriated, we went to downtown (half a block from the pub) and saw them drop the big D (that’s not a joke, it’s what they call the thing).

So, we got ourselves well rested and ready, and were on our way to Ann Arbor for the big game.  Of course, we were smart and had done our research. There was no way we’d pay $60 to park at the stadium and be forced to deal with all that traffic, no no no. We would do the smart thing and take the $4 per person shuttle from the mall, and park for free.  And since the mall is right by the interstate back towards our hotel, we’ll be back by 6, maybe even have dinner in Windsor.  Yeahhhhh, no.  The drive from our hotel in Dearborn to the mall in Ann Arbor was uneventful.  We successfully parked at the mall and looked for the line to get wristbands for the shuttle.  Then the trouble started. The line was massive, stretching around and back inside then out of the mall itself in a completely unorganized manner.  There were no workers putting people in certain lines, so after waiting in one line for about 20 minutes I walked up to the very front to ask the only person I saw which line was which.  And then he told me the wrong story.  Luckily Dad has a cane so he can get sympathy points.  Even then due to the crappy traffic we just barely made puck drop, and there were a few hundred more people behind us.  So yeah, that was fun.

Because we didn’t get there with a ton of time to spare, we couldn’t hang out at the spectator plaza (though we did go through it, because it was on the way to our gate).  So yeah, we made it to our seats, got hot chocolate in a cool cup, and all was well.  For a while. In the last Winter Classic in Philly it was definitely sweater weather, but not “if you’re not bundled in multiple layers you WILL freeze literally” weather.  This one was that. I even posted a picture on Twitter with a “warm” filter (apparently Twitter has filters now), and the NHL even replied to me!

I couldn't embed the picture, do I had to screenshot it.

One of the best parts of the game was the divided crowd.  This was as close as 50-50 that you'll see at a game.  Even a cursory glance on TV probably showed just how split the crowd was between blue and red.  I'd outed myself as a Blackhawks fan with my gloves, which sucks because I could have worn my Blackhawks snuggie at the game, shoot.  Anyway, here's a video panorama of the crowd.

And remember how Michigan football has their last home game in November (November 30th was the last game in 2013)? The stadium isn’t built for games in January.  Nothing’s heated, the benches were probably frozen iceblocks (the NHL put nice seat cushions on all the seats, so luckily nobody had to sit directly on the metal benches), and the bowl was made of nice, non-heated, not shoveled recently enough, concrete.  So, I’m going to give you all a nice little chemistry lesson here. When you take unheated concrete, add about 2-3 inches (at the start of the game) of snow, and then put 200,000 feet (many with foot warmers) in said snow to sit for three hours, what do you get? Melted snow.  Of course, because it’s well below freezing (temperature at puck drop was 14 degrees Fahrenheit (-10 Celsius, because I keep getting page views from Russia and China)), that melted snow will refreeze. On the concrete, making ice that you could play the game on.  I personally slipped (back into my seat) while someone was trying to get by me to the aisle.  Yahoo’s Greg Wyshynski tweeted that he saw two people being carried out on stretchers in the first 10 minutes of being on the concourse. It was cold, it was slippery, and not all of us had years of experience on ice.

These guys do, also, hilariously, Google automatically added falling snow to this picture, making it about 1000x better

Honestly I barely remember the game itself. For the first period or so nobody could get a decent shot on goal, the thing looked like it was coming at Bernier and Howard like a beach ball, and those two good goaltenders weren’t going to let that slip by.  I was having nightmares of a 0-0 tie going into a long shootout.  In the second, my fears were averted when (I can’t believe I’m saying this) I was glad Detroit scored.  Daniel Alfredsson deflected a shot past Bernier, a gritty grubby goal which was the only type scored in this game.  Unfortunately Detroit promptly gave up the lead (because they suck) and James Van Riemsdyk scored over Howard on the rebound, sending the game to the second intermission tied 1-1.  Both teams traded tip-in deflections in the third, and we all had to freeze our butts off for another 5 minutes.  And because overtime is too short (it really should go 10 minutes), a shootout was necessary.  Toronto won, and we all tried to get back to our warm cars.  Easier said than done.

Above is a map of the parking lots, shuttles, and etcetera around the Stadium (taken from the fan guide provided with tickets from the NHL).  Now, since the shuttles and parking go onto Stadium Boulevard (on the bottom of the map), one would logically believe that Ann Arbor would shut the street down to anything but stadium traffic, possibly even making it one way to flow onto Main Street, especially to get the buses on to their destination so they can come back and pick up more people. Yeah, that would make sense,  Instead, the buses were backed up tremendously, so much so that, in the 20-30 minutes I was in the mob of people waiting for the next series of buses from the mall, the already full buses moved about 10 feet, backed up behind other buses that had yet to load.  After then, I decided to say “screw it” and walk.  It’s about a mile and a half straight down to the mall.

That walk was about as good as you could expect.  Yeah, it was cold, but there were a few dozen other people all walking too (and apparently a bunch had left before I did and made it to the mall earlier).  Luckily I was walking alone, as my dad and his girlfriend had left earlier (he was having some more serious issues with the cold, so they left and waited for me at the mall).  So I finally made it to the mall, which, obviously, had just closed at 6, too bad, I would have bought Starbucks to warm up.  And then we finally got to the car and headed back to the hotel.  Except no.  You see, a lot of other people were trying to get out too.  A LOT of others.  Including the buses, which could have been going on only their second run of the night.  To make matters worse, people were trying to get out in both directions.  It took honestly two hours for us to get out of that parking lot and to get to a gas station. After getting there, the trip back to the hotel wasn’t that long at all.  And, of course, there were no police or anyone directing traffic at the mall.  It was just a terrible job all around.

Now, because I don’t like to complain about things without offering a proper solution, I put on my city planner hat and went to town on Google Maps.

Above is a crudely drawn over map of Ann Arbor between Michigan Stadium and the mall (remember, I have the artistic skills of a newborn calf).  The marker at the top is the stadium, the mall is at the bottom.  Now, the red is how the entrance road around the mall SHOULD have been rerouted (reminder, the mall was actually closed by the time the traffic got really bad, mainly due to the holiday, how long the game went, and the crush of people trying to get from the stadium to the mall).  The city (town) should have turned that into a giant traffic circle, with five roads to get off onto (as well as the hotels which, if you were in one of those, you shouldn’t have parked in the mall lot in the first place).  This way, all four lanes could be going in one direction, allowing for cars to exit and move much quicker.

Now, onto the buses.  From what I could tell, the buses were moving up Main Street.  This is silly on so many levels.  As marked on the map in yellow (because the buses were yellow school buses, and I’m a dork like that), the buses should have come out the mall to State Street, and gone up to the Stadium, which would not only put them on the proper side to pick up more passengers, but would also alleviate northbound congestion on Main Street. In a perfect world this would include police officers directing the traffic to allow the buses to exit the parking lot as soon as they empty and get to the intersection.

I’ve been asked which place ranks lowest for me, this place or the reigning champion of crap, Madison Square Garden (if you’re interested in hearing me rip it a new one, click here).  As far as the in stadium experience goes, I’ll give the Big House a lot of leeway, because, while it is meant to have 100,000+ every game, it’s not built for January, or a winter storm.  Plus, in comparison, the sight lines at the Big House were great.  I could see the whole rink, and we didn’t have to go up a tremendous amount of stairs, it was comparatively great.  HOWEVER, getting to MSG was a pretty painless experience, it has an MTA station RIGHT UNDERNEATH IT.  So, as far as the in arena experience, the Big House is far better than MSG.  For transit, MSG isn’t a complete nightmare.

The coldness I can deal with as not expecting a massive winter storm system to move in when you had to make these plans months in advance. That I can accept as a bad coincidence. However, even in perfect conditions, these streets would have been completely logjamed with cars trying to get to hotels (we weren’t the only people staying by Detroit, and I would be surprised if nobody stayed in Windsor and crossed the border in the morning).  That’s unacceptable, especially because they had announced this Winter Classic originally for 2012-13, before the lockout wiped it away.  That means that the NHL and Ann Arbor had over a year to plan for this, and that was the best we could get?

I was so grumpy I didn't even make up a paragraph for the Big Board. Obviously this adds a pin to Detroit, and a nice little sticker.

So the current total is:
18 venues been to (including 2 Winter Classic only cities)
7 teams I've seen on the road only, and
5 I haven't seen.  I'm coming for you Vancouver, Ottawa, Montreal, Carolina, and Florida, I'm comin for you.

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