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Winter Festival provides great opportunity for Detroit

by Brian Hedger
DETROIT -- Mike Ilitch wanted to make sure the world understood why the people in this city and across the State of Michigan refer to this place as "Hockeytown."

That, in essence, is the biggest reason the 2013 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic will be spread over roughly 45 miles and two separate outdoor ice rinks next winter. One will be at the University of Michigan's massive football stadium in Ann Arbor, which will host the actual game, while the other will be located smack dab in the heart of the Motor City at Comerica Park -- where Ilitch's Detroit Tigers play baseball during the summer.

That rink will play host to a number of hockey-related events over a two-week span leading up to the big game in Ann Arbor -- including the NHL Alumni Showdown, the tradition-rich Great Lakes Invitational college tournament, two games between Ontario Hockey League teams, one game between the American Hockey League affiliates of Detroit and Toronto, high school and youth contests and even an open skate.

Two rinks, one common goal: To celebrate the sport of hockey at all levels and make sure that Ilitch's beloved hometown gets its share of attention and economic advantages from hosting what's become an NHL signature event.


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"We didn't throw darts to put this together," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said at the first of two news conferences on Thursday to make the 2013 Winter Classic official. "We knew we were dealing with a great rivalry, two great fan bases, great organizations and ownership. We have always known about the Ilitches' commitment to Hockeytown, their emotional and financial investment, and we thought this was the right time to put all the pieces together."

They're calling it the "Hockeytown Winter Festival" and another part of its aim is to help the Winter Classic evolve into more than just a really big game each season. Now, it will officially become a happening -- a place to see and be seen, not to mention a celebration of hockey's outdoor roots.

"The Winter Classic has become a phenomenal event," Bettman said. "It's one of the major events on the sports landscape and we thought we took it to the point where this event made sense. We're now going to take it to another level in terms of scale."

The League will likely see the Red Wings and Maple Leafs break the world attendance record for a hockey game during the Winter Classic, but downtown Detroit will also be awash in hockey-related activities leading up to the big rivalry game.

That part was a prerequisite for Ilitch and his family's Ilitch Holdings Inc., which doesn't just talk about making fans happy but backs it up with its investments. Ilitch, for instance, recently agreed to pay a reported $214 million to sign free agent star first baseman Prince Fielder -- son of former Tigers' star Cecil Fielder.


He thinks Fielder's bat in the Tigers' lineup could help push his team over the top and bring the city its first World Series title since 1984. His Wings have hoisted the Stanley Cup four times in the past 15 years and are currently on top of the League standings once again.

Naturally, he demanded something great for Detroit and Michigan to come out of the Winter Classic, too. It will also be the first time a Canadian team has been invited to play in one, which will likely bring thousands across the U.S. border with Canada to spend time at both outdoor rinks.

"We're really excited for the fans," Ilitch said. "This is one of the greatest sports towns ever and this celebration of the sport of hockey will provide a tremendous positive impact to our community."

In other words, the Winter Classic will make his city the center of the hockey universe for a couple of weeks.

"We're committed to making this the best NHL Winter Classic ever, especially with the addition of the inaugural 'Hockeytown Winter Festival,'" Ilitch said. "We're proud to show the world why we love 'Hockeytown.' I can promise you, there will be something for everyone."

Detroit Mayor Dave Bing has already gotten something out of it. The former Detroit Pistons legend is trying to get his struggling city through an economic crisis that wears on citizens here and statewide, so the smile on his face Thursday morning at Comerica Park was a welcome sight.

Bing addressed Ilitch and his wife, Marian, directly during his time to address the assembled media -- thanking them for all the things they've done to support Detroit over the years.

"I take my hat off to the Ilitch family and the [Red Wings] organization, because in the position that I'm in today, it's been very difficult for me to get up and have a smile on my face," Bing said. "But today, because of your commitment, you've warmed my heart and made me smile because the things you're doing for Detroit are all things that we're very, very appreciative of."

This latest venture is just the most recent thing, but could turn out to be one of the biggest.

"We had a discussion about it," Bettman said. "We wanted to make sure we were doing the right thing for the City of Detroit. With the number of events and everything else, and setting up two rinks and handling this logistically -- that's a huge undertaking in terms of manpower and expense. But we we're committed because the Ilitches were committed to making sure that, as hosts, Detroit was going to be properly included. And we're doing it in a big way."

They call this place "Hockeytown" for a reason and next December, starting shortly before Christmas and lasting through New Year's Day, the rest of the world will find out why. Yes, the Red Wings are an iconic symbol of greatness throughout all professional sports, but hockey is also part of the fabric that makes up this city and state -- from the farthest northern reaches of the Upper Peninsula to the southernmost border with Ohio and Indiana.

This whole state is "Hockeytown" because so many take a passionate interest in the sport, from the Wings to the college teams on down to the high school and youth levels. The Great Lakes Invitational tournament, for instance, has been around for half a century and means a great deal to the state's hockey fans. Winning the championship is a big deal here -- and now the stakes are raised even higher with the tournament being slated for an outdoors extravaganza.

"The GLI will be fantastic," said longtime Red Wings forward Kris Draper, who retired after last season and now has a front-office position with the team. "You even look at the OHL games … how cool is that for these OHL kids? This is a lot more than a hockey game. This is an event. People have gone through some tough times here, but they really embrace their sports teams in the city of Detroit. They're unbelievable sports fans. That's why it's so special that these people will get to come out here and experience this and get some great memories they'll always remember."

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