ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- The Bridgestone 2014 NHL Winter Classic is expected to be the largest gathering of people to watch a game in hockey history.
The game between the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs will take place in Michigan Stadium, one of college football's most revered stadiums and known for bringing more than 100,000 people together on Saturday afternoons in the fall.
One thing the Big House is not known for is an abundance of nearby parking.
A popular option for parking at Michigan football games are the driveways and front yards of Ann Arbor residences. That's a viable option on a nice fall day, but maybe not so on a potentially snowy one in the middle of winter.
Finding alternative parking options is just one of the challenges NHL Senior Vice President of Events Don Renzulli has dealt with in the days leading up to the League's marquee day on the regular-season calendar.
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"We have Pioneer High School across the street, which has about 5,000 spaces," Renzulli told NHL.com. "I'm not sure how much we'll lose with the snow. I think some of these [local residents] will shovel their front lawns or hope it gets warm enough to melt it for parking. We have all the parking garages downtown that the city runs. We're running a shuttle from Briarwood Mall, which the [Ann Arbor Transportation Authority], the bus company that runs around campus ... they don't run on holidays so we are replicating their system. If you park over there it is going to cost $4 to ride the bus over here roundtrip. We're trying to do all the things that we can to help people find parking, especially the ones coming out of Toronto that may have never been here.
"We've built towers at all of the gates because there's going to be a lot of people who haven't been here before. Fans aren't going to be able to park on people's lawns like they do for football games, so when they come out of the stadium, where do they go? We've got like 35,000 people coming from Toronto so we're building towers at each of the four main gates that will be big with colors on them. All of the parking lots we have downtown, there is a tear-off map like, 'You are here.' If you come out of the stadium hopefully we can get you in the direction of the right tower and then in the right direction of your car. There's not a lot of parking near the stadium."
In addition to the parking issue, another item Renzulli had to deal with is that there is no alcohol sold during Michigan football games. Obtaining a temporary liquor license and negotiating the ability to sell alcohol to NHL fans was another aspect of this event that was a little different for Renzulli's team.
There will be portable beer kiosks setup inside the stadium on game day.
"The biggest thing was we didn't have a liquor license," Renzulli said. "That was part of the deal with struck with [the University of Michigan] to sell beer. They said they had the ability to do that but we had to get a temporary license, which Sodexo [stadium concession vendor] secured for us."
The first members of Renzulli's department arrived at the Big House on Dec. 2, 10 days before the NHL Winter Classic Ice Truck presented by York rolled into town for the start of the rink build. On any given day leading up to the game as many as 400 people are in the stadium getting it ready, and the legion of people Renzulli oversees will grow to approximately 4,000 on New Year's Day.
This is the first time the NHL has staged an outdoor game at an NCAA football stadium. It also easily is the biggest facility the League has been involved with. It is not the first hockey game here though, and that proved to be a helpful bonus in the planning and lead-up.
"They had the Big Chill here [the University of Michigan played Michigan State University on Dec. 11, 2010] so they had a hockey game on this field," Renzulli said. "They knew where the truck went, they knew where the pipes had to go, so a lot of that was pretty easy to do."
Renzulli's crew has been busy the past two days giving the Big House a big makeover. When they arrived in early December the only evidence that a potentially historic hockey game was less than a month away was an advertisement on the back of one of the large scoreboards.
There are banners going up inside and outside the stadium, flags to be raised from the top of the stadium and a multitude of trailers to house all of the workers and different modes of transportation for them. Not to mention the ice rink going up on top of the football field.
"It is hard to see it now but when you start to do the rink with the outside of the boards and the stuff that is going up on the fascias and the flags we are going to put up will change the whole look of the stadium," Renzulli said.
"The rights holders are going to announce from the boards, which they haven't done before. [NHL] Network's set is going to be down on the field, which it hasn't been before. Those are probably the big [new] things."
There also will be an expanded Spectator Plaza, which Renzulli said will approach 100,000 square feet, for the interactive fan festival on the morning of the game. In an effort to help everyone get in and out of the stadium efficiently, there also will be new queue lines.
If coordinating everything before the NHL Winter Classic wasn't a big enough project for Renzulli's staff, there is a new wrinkle this season -- more outdoor games. Six of them, including five sites and games happening in close proximity to one another on the calendar.
"We've added some people to the department and for the most part split them for the events," Renzulli said. "Everybody kind of works on this game but once we leave here it is split down the middle. Some people will be pulling double duty and everyone is learning from another here, but when they go off to New York and L.A., it splits. So if we have 24 people here it will be 12 at each of those games. It is a lot more and then we have to do it multiple times."