DETROIT – The NCAA officially opened the doors to the Frozen Four at frozen Ford Field Monday.
Christopher Ilitch and Bill Ford Jr., co-chairmen of this year’s Frozen Four, stood in front of the nearly completed ice surface and fielded questions from the media.
“This is awesome,” said Ilitch, president and CEO of Ilitch Holdings, Inc. “I mean, this is Hockeytown right? To have championship collegiate hockey, it gets no better than this.”
Detroit Mayor Dave Bing and Central Collegiate Hockey Association commissioner Tom Anastos, who played a key role in bringing the event to Detroit, stood beside Ilitch and Ford as they discussed how their idea came to fruition.
Anastos, who was born in Dearborn, Mich., and played four years at Michigan State University, began the process of bringing the sport to a stage like Ford Field over five years ago.
“There were a lot of different thoughts that went into it,” Anastos said. “Ultimately timing was kind of a key dynamic. We put a group together to explore what the possibilities were, the idea of maybe trying something a little bit out of the box – or maybe way out of the box.”
The NCAA approved the idea, paving the way for attendance records to be broken. The Frozen Four attendance record is 19,432, set in the 2007 national championship game in St. Louis, when Michigan State defeated Boston College.
The Frozen Four committee is expecting to demolish that record this week, when RIT, Wisonsin, Miami (Ohio), and Boston College descend upon downtown Detroit.
Ilitch said that the loyal fan bases of each team will be swarming into Detroit, and that nobody should forget about how passionate Michiganders are about the sport.
“I know we have a lot of folks coming in from Boston, it sounds like the whole town of Rochester is here to root on their Tigers, and I know there are a lot of folks coming in from Miami of Ohio and of course Wisconsin has a big following,” he said. “I think it’s going to be a great impact because there are so many folks traveling in. Then of course just the interest in our local market, being a hockey tradition hotbed, they’re going to be coming down for sure to fill this place. It’s going to be sold out, it’s going to be a lot of fun, great atmosphere downtown this week.”
If the games are sold out, an even bigger record could be broken. The current world record attendance for an indoor hockey game is 28,183, which was set in 1996 when the Tampa Bay Lightning and Philadelphia Flyers squared off at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla. The Frozen Four coincides with an exciting sports week in Detroit, with the Red Wings playing their regular-season home finale on Wednesday, and the Detroit Tigers opening their home schedule on Friday at Comerica Park.
“I think the city will show itself well,” said Ford, executive chairman of the board of directors of Ford Motor Company. “One of the things I said earlier is that we know from the Super Bowl and from the Final Four – when fans come here they don’t know what to expect. They’re not sure, if they’ve heard all the best things about Detroit, in fact they haven’t. But we also know that when they leave here, they felt great about the city, and we aim to do that again.”
Bing voiced similar sentiments about the city. When the puck officially drops on Thursday, Ford Field will be the first sports venue to ever host the NCAA’s basketball Final Four and the Frozen Four in back-to-back years.
“I think it lets the world know that Detroit can do this,” Bing said. “It is a place where people can come, have a good time, experience a great athletic event. We’ve had quite a few of them here, I think people who have participated, people who have visited here have had a good time, and we want to make sure that happens again this time.”
Ilitch hopes that everyone has fun, including the players. When asked what he hopes the student-athletes take from an event like this, he joked that it was all one big recruiting push for the Wings, and then said they have earned the right to have fun.
“I’m hoping that they all feel like they want to play on the Detroit Red Wings sometime soon,” Ilitch said. “No … it’s a lifetime experience for them. I hope it’s all they want it to be, and I just hope that they have a blast while they’re in town, and that they make the most of it.”