2014 NHL Winter Classic puts the spotlight on Ann Arbor, a great American hockey town

With the recent announcement that the 2014 NHL Winter Classic will be held at Michigan Stadium between the Detroit Red Wings and the Toronto Maple Leafs, the spotlight of the hockey world is going to shine on a tremendously underrated hockey town in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Whether you’re a hockey player young or old, male or female, a complete rookie or grizzled veteran, or like to play indoors vs. outdoors, Ann Arbor has something to offer for everyone.

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University of Michigan Wolverines Hockey

The most exciting sporting event at the University of Michigan is, without question, the hockey games at Yost Ice Arena featuring one of the top college squads in nation. They’ve gone to the NCAA tournament 21 years in a row, including 11 trips to the Frozen Four and two championships (1996 & 1998) during that span, including a loss in the NCAA Final to Minnesota-Duluth last season. The atmosphere at Yost isn’t just about a winning hockey program which continues to produce NHL talent, however – just being in the crowd for a Michigan hockey game is an event in itself, and in December 2010, they hosted Michigan State in the Big House, setting the current benchmark for the largest crowd to ever watch a hockey game:

U.S. National Team Development Program

Back in the mid-90’s, USA Hockey launched a bold new effort to identify the nation’s top teenage players, and provide an environment where they could get elite-level training to prepare them for international competition representing Team USA. The new National Team Development Program was headquarted in Ann Arbor at the Ice Cube, and fields an Under-17 team which competes in the USHL, along with a U18 program which plays against a variety of opponents (USHL, college, and international). That U18 team has won the gold medal at the IIHF U18 World Championships 6 times in the last 10 years, so that program has already boosted America’s development of star-quality hockey players.

Over the years, the NTDP has helped a number of elite players reach the NHL, including Jimmy Howard (who may well start the Winter Classic for Detroit), Ryan Suter, Phil Kessel, David Booth, Patrick Kane, and Ryan Kesler, among many others. Last season, more than 60 former NTDP alumni played in the NHL.

Strong Local Amateur Leagues

The amateur hockey scene around Ann Arbor is vibrant, both for kids and adults. The Ann Arbor Amateur Hockey Association has been around for 60 years, offering instruction and competitive play for youth players (both boys & girls) at all levels, while the local high schools (Pioneer & Huron) also boast varsity programs.

At the other end of the spectrum, venues like the Ann Arbor Ice Cube¬†and Veteran’s Memorial Ice Arena¬†support leagues which cater to adult players all the way from former college & pro athletes down to the complete novice, including a women-only league, the MACRHL. This is especially important when introducing new people to the great sport of hockey, because without deep leagues which are sufficiently stocked at various talent & skill levels, a new player can get completely lost out there (and turned off from the game) if they have to play with other skaters who are far above their level.

One of my earliest rec-league teams, moments are getting our butts kicked by a team of dental students that didn't even have a player to spare on the bench.

Outdoor Hockey Already Commonplace In Ann Arbor

Perhaps the greatest thing about all this local hockey culture tying in to the Winter Classic? Outdoor hockey is already a staple of the Ann Arbor hockey scene, as Buhr Park features an outdoor rink which is regularly part of the winter schedule for the adult recreational leagues in town. Back in my early beer-league days, we used to play about half our winter games on the ice at Buhr, often with a strong breeze or a dose of flurries to make the game even more interesting. Sure, the ice itself wasn’t quite as nice as at Yost Arena, but there’s something special about outdoor hockey that sets it apart, and that’s what we’re all looking forward to on January 1, 2014, when the Red Wings and Maple Leafs face off in what is rapidly becoming the NHL’s mid-season sensation.

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