ANN ARBOR, Mich.
-- Gary Bettman has been on many big stages in his time as commissioner of the National Hockey League. But nothing prepared him for his first encounter with the Michigan Stadium, the 110,000-capacity behemoth affectionately known as the Big House.
"In one word, 'Wow!'" Bettman said in his remarks Thursday from Michigan Stadium on a brilliant winter afternoon. "There is a reason they call it the 'Big House' and we couldn't be more thrilled to have the opportunity to play here next New Year's Day."
Bettman had never been to Michigan Stadium before and was clearly taken aback by the size and scope of the biggest stadium in North America. He came down the tunnel -- the only entrance to the playing field -- and walked onto the sideline at the 50-yard line with the synthetic turf laid before him like an oasis; one surrounded by row after row of aluminum benches and capped by two-year-old banks of luxury suites.
, one of five Detroit players to make an appearance at Thursday's presser at Michigan Stadium, came away equally impressed. He said the excitement kept building as he walked down the downhill tunnel toward the square of sunlight that marked the entrance to the field.
"We were talking about how it is a long walk, but we can put water there and make it ice and we can skate (onto field)," Datsyuk told NHL.com. "We kept walking and walking and then I was like, 'Wow!'"
There's that word again, this time from a man that has won the Stanley Cup twice and represented Russia in the Olympics.
"I can try to make picture of the people there, but I can't figure it out yet," Datsyuk said. "But I just start feeling goose bumps. It's hard to explain."
has been to the Big House a few times, taking in football games. He made the first trip during his second pro season, still trying to grasp the rules of the game played before him, while trying to process being a part of such a mass of humanity.
He doesn't remember many details of that afternoon excursion made by so many Michigan residents. But he remembers that moment when the Big House flashed its charismatic charm on him for the first time.
"I still remember I was amazed at the size of the stadium, the noise and just everything around it, the atmosphere and everything," Lidstrom told NHL.com
Such reactions are the norm, said Dave Brandon, the athletic director at the University of Michigan. Brandon accompanied Bettman on the walk to the field and saw all the classic reactions from a first-time visitor.
"It's fun to walk down there with somebody that hasn't seen it before -- especially a guy who has committed to playing one of his most important events here," Brandon told NHL.com. "It's nice to know that when he walks out here, he's quite pleased -- and I'm not surprised."
Brandon also said the awe doesn't dissipate with repeated visits.
The 59-year-old first walked through that tunnel 45 years ago as a fan. He has made the trip countless times since and still gets worked up about the experience.
"I walked down that tunnel for the first time as a 14-year-old," he said, "and then walked down it with a football uniform on for four years, and now I come through it for every game and, man, I'm telling you whether this place is full or empty, every time I walk out of that tunnel, I'm just astounded by the immensity of it, the history of it and the importance of it. It's just a very special place.
"The Big House is the Big House. Anybody that has ever been here, no matter what team they are affiliated with, leaves here with a memory that doesn't go away. It is a very, very special place."
Lidstrom says he expects another memorable experience on New Year's Day when the Red Wings pull on their red sweaters and march down that long, sloping tunnel and emerge into a cauldron of sensory overload.
"You're going to see a lot more Maple Leafs fans coming out," he said. "I think just having the two Original Six teams play each other … and have both sets of fans in the stand. I think it will be a great atmosphere. It's a special place."