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Players are anxious for Big House game

by Zack Crawford / Detroit Red Wings
Pavel Datsyuk spoke to the media Thursday as the Wings' center got a first glimpse at Michigan Stadium, where Detroit will host the Maple Leafs next New Year's Day. (Photo by Dave Reginek)
ANN ARBOR, Mich. – As Henrik Zetterberg stood on the 50-yard line at Michigan Stadium, gazing up at over 100,000 empty seats, the prospect of having to wait nearly 11 months to play in the 2013 Winter Classic seemed more than a little disappointing.

“It’s too bad it’s almost a year away; you almost want to do this in a week or two,” Zetterberg said. “We were all fired up as soon as we heard the rumors. We were really hoping that it would happen, and the last few days when we knew, it was kind of tough to keep it secret so it’s nice that this day’s here so we can start talking about it.”

The talk has surely begun.

Thursday morning, in a news conference at Comerica Park in downtown Detroit, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman officially announced that next year’s Winter Classic – between the Wings and the Toronto Maple Leafs – will be held at Michigan Stadium, with insularly events including the alumni game, OHL and AHL games and the Great Lakes Invitational taking place at Comerica Park and billed as part of the inaugural Hockeytown Winter Festival.

In addition to the NHL, Wings and Leafs representatives, five Wings’ players – fit for the part with jerseys, hockey gloves and sticks – stood by as the conference was held on the field.

Down the same tunnel that they will traverse on skates next New Year’s Day, Pavel Datsyuk, Jimmy Howard, Niklas Kronwall, Nicklas Lidstrom and Zetterberg walked onto the field into the bright February sunlight.

For Kronwall, it was his first time inside of the Western Hemisphere’s largest stadium.

“It’s just huge. It really is,” Kronwall said. “You drive past it and you see these big walls but it’s hard to imagine how they could fit a 100,000-plus in here, and then when you walk through the tunnel you look around and you see why.”

Before this season’s training camp, both Zetterberg and Howard watched football games at the Big House in 2012. Zetterberg even had a chance to walk down on the field after witnessing UM beat Notre Dame in early September. But getting back into the Big House in anticipation for the Winter Classic created a different kind of excitement for the Red Wings center.

“It’s pretty cool to do that walk down the tunnel and hit the banner when you walk out the locker room,” Zetterberg said. “I called my dad on the way over here and he already booked a ticket for Christmas so a lot of family will come from Sweden and be part of this so it’s going to be cool.”

In a deal approved by UM’s Board of Regents on Wednesday, the NHL is renting Michigan Stadium for the event for the price of $3 million. The event is not university sponsored, which means that all ticket sales, parking, concessions and advertising will be determined by the NHL.

In addition, the university will use a one-day liquor license to allow the sale of alcoholic beverages at the Winter Classic, an anomaly at the Big House, as beer is not typically sold at UM football games.

For some of the Wings, the 2013 Winter Classic will be another chance to experience the thrill they were first exposed to at Wrigley Field in 2009.

“I think ever since (2009), we’ve just been waiting to get a chance to do it here at home and we’re really looking forward to it,” Kronwall said. “As soon as we started hearing the rumors I think everyone just crossed their fingers and were hoping that we’d get another chance. And this time to do it at home, and also of course playing against Toronto, it’s going to be really special.”

But even for those who played in Chicago in 2009, the spotlight on next year’s Winter Classic will be intensified, especially with the introduction of HBO’s “24/7: Road to the NHL Winter Classic” television series to the buzz surrounding the game.

“It’ll be a little different for us,” Zetterberg said of having cameras following the team around. “We got a little taste when they followed Nick for 36 hours. A lot of guys were in hiding then, so we’ll see how it will go. I talked to some other guys that have been through that experience and they say you get used to it after a while and so hopefully that will happen for us too.”

When Datsyuk was asked who would take the spotlight in HBO’s series, it seemed as though he already had an answer prepared.

“Holmstrom, Bertuzzi, Cleary,” Datsyuk rattled off. “If they followed me it would be 24 hour like old movie — no sound.”

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