ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Three years ago, when the University of Michigan hosted "The Big Chill at the Big House," the school operated the event as they do on a normal football Saturday at Michigan Stadium.
The staff was the same. Parking rules were the same. Catering was the same. The only real difference was the sport the spectators showed up to watch.
The event provided Michigan officials insight into what it takes to pull off a unique winter event at Michigan Stadium, but to say it prepared them for the 2014 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic would be wrong.
No event in the history of Michigan Stadium will be quite like the one the NHL is putting on Wednesday, when the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs ring in 2014 with the sixth edition of the Winter Classic (1 p.m., NBC, CBC).
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"The difference with this game is the NHL has come in and they're taking it to a whole other level," said Rob Rademacher, Michigan's associate athletic director of facilities and operations. "They've described it as their Super Bowl. We took some entertainment for the Big Chill, fireworks and other things, to another level that we hadn't done before here at Michigan; but from everything I've seen that we're going to do on Wednesday with the NHL, it's going the next step."
Rademacher is talking about musical acts on the field, such as the Zac Brown Band singing the United States national anthem, Mayer Hawthorne performing during the pregame festivities and again during the first intermission, and The Tenors performing the Canadian national anthem. He's talking about the CF-18 fighter jets flying over The Big House after the Zac Brown Band finishes performing the Star-Spangled Banner.
He's also talking about the Winter Classic decor going up both inside the bowl and on the exterior facades of the stadium. Michigan Stadium is typically devoid of signage.
"I think it looks great," Rademacher said. "I think the NHL has done an unbelievable job of fitting into Michigan Stadium's décor and making it look like it's their venue."
The venue extends outside Michigan Stadium to Spectator Plaza, which will be open to fans from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Wednesday. It extends to the numerous trailers that have been brought in to serve as makeshift offices for the army of vendors and service personnel necessary to produce the game.
"We were joking around and I was like, 'Same size, right?'" NHL Executive Vice President of Events Don Renzulli said. "You see Spectator Plaza going up and all the trailers we have, I don't think they had all of that. They had their refrigeration truck, went out and built the rink on the field and they played the game. I don't even know if they did any décor inside. The field was all exposed. There is a lot more that we do."
The other major difference Rademacher noted is the people expected to walk through the turnstiles Wednesday. He believes many of the 104,173 that attended "The Big Chill" were familiar with the stadium, how to get there and where to park. That won't be the case for the Winter Classic.
"You're dealing with a different fan base," Rademacher said. "What we're bringing in on Wednesday, I'm anticipating 80 percent of the people have never been to Michigan Stadium."
As a result, officials from the NHL and Michigan have attempted to make information about the venue available to fans through emails and press releases posted on NHL.com.
Renzulli said his staff has been holding meetings with the stadium staff working the practice day on Tuesday and the game on Wednesday.
The game-day stadium staff will be the same that works Michigan football games.
"We have a pretty well-oiled machine on game day and now we're dealing with 80,000 people that may have never been here and they don't know where to go, so making sure they get that information and we do a good job fitting it into the system we already have set up is important," Rademacher said. "There has been a lot of work toward that end."
Rademacher said his group has already picked up some tips from the planning for the Winter Classic that they plan to use at future events to make the fan experience better.
"First off, what we're doing for transportation with this game is we're taking our shuttle system and expanding it, trying to get fans to park further out and use the shuttle system," Rademacher said. "Secondly, from the production standpoint, the amount of planning and logistics that go around this game are amazing, and the coordination of getting all these things on and off the field has been to a level we haven't done at a football game. I think we can take some of that into our events to make them better for our fans."