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An outdoor game, festival, intrigues Red Wings

by Bill Roose / Detroit Red Wings
Sabres' Thomas Vanek battles the snow during the Winter Classic at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, N.Y (Photo by Bill Wippert/Getty Images)
DETROIT – If the NHL plans to host future outdoor games, they wouldn’t have to look beyond Hockeytown as a next stop.

Following the league’s successful Winter Classic game held in Buffalo on New Year’s Day, many of the Red Wings players and coach Mike Babcock said they would welcome the chance to battle a league foe -- and the weather -- at an outdoor venue.

“I would have loved to be involved in something like that,” Wings defenseman Chris Chelios said. “It’s not like we don’t have the facilities here in Michigan. I don’t think it would be a problem selling out here.

“Obviously there were some factors because you saw the guys with the buckets trying to do some repairs as the game was going on. But if that’s the only negative thing that comes out of it then I think it was a big plus. Everybody was talking about it. Everybody watched it.”

Tuesday’s Buffalo-Pittsburgh game, before 71,217 fans at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, N.Y., was just the fourth outdoor game involving U.S. colleges or NHL teams held in North America.

According to the league, the NBC broadcast earned a 2.6 overnight rating and a 5 share -- the best overnight NHL regular-season rating in more than a decade.

The Penguins won, 2-1, when superstar Sydney Crosby scored the game-winner in the game’s final shootout attempt.

“In a perfect world, it looked like it was scripted out that Crosby got the goal,” Chelios said. “I would have had it fixed so that someone on Buffalo would have scored the shootout goal so that 60,000 people could go crazy. But overall, I thought it was a big plus for the NHL, the exposure, the show, the setting it was perfect.”

The league has hosted two outdoor games in two of its smallest markets – Edmonton and Buffalo – and has drawn the league’s two biggest crowds. The Oilers hosted Montreal before 57,167 fans in 2003.

College games have been played at outdoor football facilities at Michigan State’s Spartan Stadium in Oct. 2001, and at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis., in Feb. 2006. There are currently 47 NHL players who have participated in at least one of the three outdoor games prior to Tuesday’s contest in Buffalo.

The consensus in the Wings’ locker room is that Michigan Stadium on the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor. Nicknamed the ‘Big House’ for consistently setting new attendance records on college football Saturdays, Michigan Stadium could hold more than 111,000 fans.

“I can definitely see it coming to Michigan,” Wings right wing Dan Cleary said. “Michigan could be a great host. It would be great for the kids, for everybody, throughout the whole state. … The Big House would be pretty cool. With the number of people they could seat, outdoors, it would be great.”

Some see Detroit’s close proximity to Canada as an ideal opportunity to promote the game to an even larger audience by creating a weekend-long event.

“Michigan State, Michigan, we’ve got the U.S. Development program, we could combine it all together, it would be a heck of a festival,” Babcock said. “We could have a huge draw here. You could have it at the Big House or wherever you’d want to do it. But to me, because we’re so close to Canada, you’d get a lot of people that way, especially if you did Toronto and us. If you did a college game as a warm-up the day before you could even have a little three-on-three tournament. You could have an unbelievable festival that would generate revenue for our city that would put hockey and our city back on the map. It would be a fantastic thing.”

Wings center Kirk Maltby said Tuesday’s game was a tremendous boost to the league, and the game in general.

“I think it’s great for the sport, but obviously we don’t need a lot of help in Michigan and in certain parts of the States,” Maltby said, “but getting the coverage that it got, plus they had other things like a side rink for shinny hockey. It just seemed like a great atmosphere. It was just awesome seeing the stands full.”

For Wings goalie Dominik Hasek, watching Buffalo and Pittsburgh players battle the chill and snow, reminded him of playing youth games back home in the Czech Republic.

“It’s been a long time since I last played in an open (outdoor) hockey game,” Hasek said. “I was a child probably, but of course the cold weather and the wind was a disadvantage for the goalies. But I played many games outside and you get frozen toes, but you still enjoy it.”

Ask how he would prepare from a warmth standpoint, Hasek said, “You have to look at what kind of weather it would be. I probably would put more undershirts on and chance it every intermission. Anytime that you don’t face too many shots, maybe one or two shots in five minutes you have to move, skate in the crease and stretch because you’d want to stay warm.”

Some hockey traditionalists don’t like the idea of playing NHL games outdoors. They point to
The ice maintenance crew repairs the ice during the third period of the Winter Classic at the Ralph Wilson Stadium. The Penguins won the game 2-1 in a shoot out. (Photo by Dave Sandford/Getty Images)
concerns with poor ice, but like Cleary points out, “For sure, you get ruts and things like that that you can get your skates stuck in. But you know that can happen indoors as well. There are a lot of rinks that don’t have good ice.”

Al Sobotka, the Wings’ ice guru, said, albeit the litany of challenges that he would pose, he would welcome the chance to build an outdoor rink.

“I think it would be awesome if you say do it at Ford Field, Comerica Park,” Sobotka said. “Just the bigger challenges of being outside and not knowing what Michigan weather will be like. Or at Michigan Stadium where you could get more than 100,000 people would be fabulous. I would be all for it.”

Typically, Sobotka and his staff can re-install the ice surface at Joe Louis Arena  -- and have it ready to skate on -- in 24 hours.

“You have to prep everything properly,” he said. “I went out and watched the Michigan-Michigan State game at (Spartan Stadium). I don’t see it being that much different than ours. I try to get the floor leveled off that would be one of the most important parts. Watching some of the game (Tuesday) with the holes there, the ice kept breaking away, so you’d have to make sure that you have enough thickness of ice on there so that wouldn’t happen. I don’t know what they did (in Buffalo), but I’m sure there’s room for improvements.”

It’s been reported that Philadelphia general manager Paul Holmgren has suggested that the Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins play a regular-season game at Penn State’s Beaver Stadium.

But Mike Emrick, who called Tuesday’s action from Buffalo for an American audience on NBC, the league should be cautious before over-saturating the schedule with outdoor games.

“My feeling is that it has to be the perfect storm and that was yesterday,” Emrick said. “If it were bright sunshine and you had all kinds of problems with the ice it probably wouldn’t have created the impression that the game did just because there was so much uncertainty and it (the weather) was getting worse.

“I think the hook on this one was that the weather was so bad. But then again, I don’t know if it would translate to another game. It certainly would have a lot to live up to just because of the chaos effect.”

Dallas Stars goalie and former Michigan standout Marty Turco missed playing in the “Cold War” between his Wolverine and Michigan State game by three years, but he likes the idea of playing an NHL game at his alma mater.
“I can still remember the naïve young 19-year old walking on campus and watching the Wolverines in there for the first time against the Boston College Eagles and couldn’t believe how big that place was,” Turco said. “To put a hockey rink in the middle of it would be pretty surreal. They would have to pry me away if they didn’t ask me to play in that one. It certainly would be an honor and a treat.”

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