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Ilitch, Wings thrilled for Winter Classic

by Bill Roose / Detroit Red Wings
Red Wings GM Ken Holland and Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke discuss the 2013 Winter Classic, which will be at Michigan Stadium next New Year's Day. (Photo By Dave Reginek)
DETROIT – The NHL’s official announcement outlining plans for the 2013 Winter Classic had Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch so stoked that he could hardly contain himself during Thursday morning’s news conference at Comerica Park.

“Where are my skates? I’m all fired up,” Ilitch said. “And I don’t even skate.”

The league announced plans for what will likely be the largest attended Winter Classic to date when the Red Wings host the Toronto Maple Leafs at the largest stadium in the Western Hemisphere on New Year’s Day.

The Wings and Leafs will play the first-ever NHL game at the 109,901-seat Michigan Stadium on the Ann Arbor campus of the University of Michigan.

Besides the NHL game, the league and Red Wings announced plans to host a two week hockey celebration with the inaugural Hockeytown Winter Festival at Comerica Park, home of the Detroit Tigers. An ice rink will be built in the infield – between first and third base – where every level of hockey from pros to peewee will be played next December.

Comerica will also be home to a special game – the NHL Alumni Showdown – rekindling former rivalries between former Wings and Leafs players.

The outdoor rink at Comerica Park will also be the site for an American Hockey League game between the Grand Rapids Griffins and the Toronto Marlies, the top two minor-league affiliates of the Wings and Leafs, respectively. The Great Lakes Invitational, the annual two-day college tournament will be held outside with Michigan, Michigan State, Michigan Tech and Western Michigan participating, and the Ontario Hockey League will also have a doubleheader at Comerica with the WIndsor Spitfires playing the Saginaw Spirits and the Plymouth Whalers facing off against the London Knights.

Days and times for each of the games will be announced at a later date.

“The Winter Classic and the activities around it have grown year after year and it was the vision of Mike and Marian Ilitch that this Winter Classic should be the biggest one ever, because Detroit is Hockeytown and Michigan is a hotbed of hockey,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said. "More over, this is something the Ilitches wanted to do for the fans and for this community.

“There will be more opportunities than ever before for people to connect with the Winter Classic excitement and the Winter Classic experience.”

The idea to install two sheets of ice at two different venues 45-miles apart is a darling concept, but one that could likely shatter the current world record for hockey attendance, and bring 150,000 and 200,000 people to Comerica Park and downtown Detroit with a $50 million economic windfall to the city.

According to the Guinness World Records, the attendance record was set on Dec. 11, 2010 when 104,073 people attended the college hockey game between Michigan and Michigan State.

“You sort of need these signature events every once in a while to keep everybody pointed in the same direction,” said Tom Wilson, president and CEO of Olympia Entertainment. “It’s kind of a great reminder – but not that winning 18 games in a row at home isn’t a great reminder – but when you have this great events it reminds you of how fortunate you are to work in this environment and to be a part of something that is transformational for the city.”

Next January’s game will be the eighth outdoor game put on by the league.

In 28 years with the Wings organization, general manager Ken Holland has attended one Wolverines football game at the Big House. But that experience was enough for him to know the enormity of next New Year’s Day.

“I think there are a lot of things that add up to this being an incredible game and an incredible two weeks,” Holland said. “Just the history of hockey here, and the rivalry between the Leafs and the Red Wings, the alumni game and the historical players that the Leafs have had and the historical players that we’ve had.

“The passion of the fans and there’ll be lots of Leafs’ fans and lots of Red Wings’ fans, and then you talk about Michigan Stadium and one of the greatest venues on college football, it just adds up to two great weeks and an incredible game.”

Details for the Hockeytown Winter Festival are still in the planning stages with city and community leaders, including organizers for the Motown Winter Blast and The Parade Company.

Wilson anticipates that there will be plenty to see and do in and around Comerica Park.

 “If you’re going to the games you can come down an hour or two early and you’ll certainly have an hour or two of time to kill between the doubleheader so you can come in here and enjoy it inside or you can go experience a little of the hockey weather with some of the contests that will be taking place or just enjoy some of the displays that we’ll have with the history of hockey. It will be a lot of fun for everybody.”

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