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Wings, Leafs to play '13 Winter Classic at Big House

by Shawn P. Roarke

DETROIT -- The NHL's Winter Classic has grown bigger each season of its five-year existence. It's only fitting that the next stop for the Jan. 1 outdoor game will be at Michigan Stadium, known by many as "The Big House."

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman announced Thursday morning the 2013 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic -- between Original Six rivals Detroit and Toronto -- will be played at the home of the University of Michigan's football team in Ann Arbor.

"These two Original Six rivals will take the Winter Classic to a new record-setting level," Bettman said in announcing the game.

Bettman made the announcement at Comerica Park, home of the Detroit Tigers, which will host the Hockeytown Winter Festival, a week-long celebration of the game at all levels.


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The 2013 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic marks the first time a Canadian-based franchise is part of the festivities.

"It's Hockeytown against the center of the hockey universe," Leafs GM Brian Burke said during a roundtable discussion with Red Wings GM Ken Holland after the announcement. "We're real excited; two passionate fan bases. I promise you, there will be a lot of (Maple Leaf) blue in the Big House."

Michigan Stadium -- the stadium with the highest capacity in North America -- might be the only venue that can handle the interest this matchup will generate.

"Since this game is going to be so big, it could only be played in one place," Bettman said. "Even with 115,000 tickets available, we won't have enough tickets to meet demand."

This Winter Classic also marks the first time that the events of Winter Classic week will be split between two venues -- Comerica Park and Michigan Stadium.

While the game at the Big House is the undeniable star -- "The NHL and the Big House, it doesn't get any better than that," said Chris Ilitch, President and CEO of Ilitch Holdings, Inc., the Red Wings' parent company -- the Hockeytown Winter Festival is a huge component of the 2013 Winter Classic experience, as well.

"The solution we came to was let's do a Winter Festival, let's do everything downtown and we'll take the game out to Ann Arbor because with 115,000 people and a historic venue and with two historic teams, we thought we couldn't get much of a bigger stage than that," Holland said.

"We're really excited for the fans of Detroit," Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch said. "This community deserves a big event like this. We're committed to making this the biggest NHL Winter Classic ever."

The cornerstone of the Hockeytown Winter Festival is the NHL Alumni Showdown, which will feature many of the game's biggest legends playing in the home of the Tigers, the major league baseball team also owned by Ilitch. The alumni game is scheduled for Dec. 31.

In addition to the Alumni Showdown, an impressive lineup of other games will be played at Comerica Park during the Hockeytown Winter Festival. One headline event will be the Great Lakes Invitational, which will take collegiate teams Michigan, Michigan State, Michigan Tech and Western Michigan outdoors for the popular and long-standing tournament that is a tradition in Detroit.

There will also be American League hockey between the Grand Rapid Griffins and Toronto Marlies, two Ontario Hockey League games involving the four area teams, high school and youth hockey games played at Comerica, as well as public-skating sessions. The events, which will run for the final two weeks of December, are expected to bring more than 250,000 fans to the downtown area.

"I promise you, there will be something for everybody," Mike Ilitch said.
"It's Hockeytown against the center of the hockey universe. We're real excited; two passionate fan bases. I promise you, there will be a lot of (Maple Leaf) blue in the Big House." -- Maple Leafs' GM Brian Burke

As usual, the Winter Classic will be Jan. 1, with a backup date of Jan. 2. The game will be televised by NBC, CBC and RDS.

It is no secret Ilitch has wanted to host the Winter Classic since his team appeared in the 2009 edition as a visitor against the Chicago Blackhawks at Wrigley Field. Detroit won that contest, defeating the Hawks, 6-4, before 40,818 fans.

Bettman said the passion the Ilitch family has for the sport of hockey, as well as Detroit's ability to host big events, played greatly in the decision to call Hockeytown home for the 2013 Classic.

In recent years, the Detroit area has hosted a MLB All-Star Game, Super Bowl XL, golf's Ryder Cup, the NCAA Final Four basketball championship, NCAA hockey's Frozen Four championship, MLB's World Series and multiple Stanley Cup Finals.

The opportunity to play the Winter Classic game at Michigan Stadium and go for a Guinness World Record crowd proved to be a successful pairing.

The current record occurred at the Big House on Dec. 11, 2010 when a crowd of 104,173 showed up to see Michigan beat Michigan State, 5-0, in a game known as the "Big Chill."

"I know the NHL intends to try to break that record with this matchup of Original Six members, the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Detroit Red Wings," said Dave Brandon, the Michigan University athletic director. "If they can find out a way, they will set the new record not only for the largest crowd to watch a hockey game, but the largest crowd to watch anything in this stadium. Then, my job is to find out a way to beat it."
The record for a NHL game was set in the inaugural Winter Classic when 71,217 fans filled Ralph Wilson Stadium for the 2008 Amp Energy NHL Winter Classic, in which Pittsburgh defeated the host Sabres in the shootout. Boston's Fenway Park (2010), Pittsburgh's Heinz Field (2011) and Philadelphia's Citizens Bank Park, this past January, have been the other hosts of Winter Classic games.

None of those hosts, however, have come close to the capacity provided by the Big House.

The largest crowd in the history of Michigan Stadium, which was built in 1927 and most recently renovated in 2010, was recorded this past September when 114,800 showed up for a football game between the Wolverines and Notre Dame. It was the first night game in the history of the stadium.

It's anticipated even more people could show up for the matchup between the Leafs and Wings, two fierce Original Six rivals separated by a drive of less than five hours.

These teams have been facing off against each other since 1926 and their rivalry is among the most even in the history of the game. The teams have met 643 times in the regular season and Detroit has taken 646 of the 1,291 points awarded by going 275-273-93-3 against the Leafs.

The teams have also met 23 times in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, with Toronto taking 12 of the series. The rivals have contested the Stanley Cup Final on seven different occasions. Detroit won the first meeting in 1936, but Toronto has won the past six, including the most recent in 1964.

The franchises last met in the playoffs in the 1993 Norris Division Semifinals. Toronto won the series, 4-3, after Nikolai Borschevsky scored at 2:35 of overtime in Game 7 at Joe Louis Arena.

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