Without hesitating, Babcock asserted a desire for his Wings to play the Toronto Maple Leafs in the largest stadium in the Western Hemisphere.
Now 1,499 days since making his bold premonition, the NHL has announced that Babcock and the Wings organization will get their marquee game when they host their Original Six rivals in the 2013 Winter Classic in front of more than 110,000 fans at Michigan Stadium on the Ann Arbor campus of the University of Michigan.
“We love the idea, it’s been something that we’ve talked about for a while, and I think it’s a fantastic thing,” Babcock said, recently. “We’re an Original Six franchise that has been a good franchise. We got to play at Wrigley Field, the whole thing was great, but the best thing was the family skate the day before. That’s fantastic and the way it’s become a family event, and now with the alumni and the way it’s set-up this year starting at Comerica Park and then move to the Big House, it will be like the Super Bowl, it will be a week-long festival preparing for this great game in a setting that is fantastic.”
For the first time in its six years, the Winter Classic will use two venues when it comes to Detroit. Billed as the Hockeytown Winter Festival, a celebration of hockey in southeastern Michigan and southern Ontario, the festivities will begin in downtown Detroit with the mid-December installment of an ice rink at Comerica before ramping up to the New Year’s Day showdown at the Big House.
Hosting the sixth edition of the league's annual winter extravaganza is just another marquee event for an organization that's won 11 Stanley Cups, played in the Cup finals 23 times and participated in numerous memorable games, the events of Jan. 1, 2013 could become a part of that enviable pantheon.
However, it won’t be the first time that the Wings and Leafs played in Ann Arbor. The two longtime rivals played a preseason game to a 4-4 draw at Yost Arena on Sept. 28, 1986.
The appeal of playing the game in an enormous stadium like the Big House is the possibility to break the world record for the largest crowd to ever witness an outdoor hockey game, which, ironically is currently held by Michigan Stadium. 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. Originally, the attendance was believed to be much lower, but after Guinness officials verified ticket-scanner information from the day of the game, the 104,073 figured was allowed to stand.
The largest crowd to ever see an NHL game was at the first Winter Classic when the Sabres hosted the Pittsburgh Penguins in front of 71,217 fans at Buffalo’s Ralph Wilson Stadium.
Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwall
is used to regularly playing in front of 20,000 fans at Joe Louis Arena, but just the notion of suiting up before a crowd that could easily top five times that is unfathomable.
“It sounds ridiculous, but I think it will be awesome and I can’t wait,” said Kronwall, who was part of the ’09 Winter Classic win at Chicago’s Wrigley Field. “We all had so such a blast in Chicago and to be able to come to Michigan and play there, I think everyone in here is thrilled for the news and looking forward to it.”
Besides the Wings-Leafs game and the teams’ practices on New Year’s Eve, all of the other hockey events will occur at Comerica Park, the home of the Detroit Tigers.
A bevy of games is scheduled for Comerica, including a Wings-Leafs alumni game and an American Hockey League contest featuring the Grand Rapids Griffins and Toronto Marlies – the top minor-league affiliates of the Wings and Leafs, respectively.
Also expected at Comerica is an Ontario Hockey League doubleheader with London, Plymouth, Saginaw and Windsor participating, and the Great Lakes Invitational, the annual two-day Central Collegiate Hockey Association tournament which has been played at JLA since 1979.
Dates for the Hockeytown Winter Festival will be released later.
The installation of the Comerica rink will begin Dec. 4 and should be ready to use by Dec. 15 by local youth and high school teams, as well as for open-skating sessions, until Christmas.
The demand for tickets will be tremendous, especially with so many fans of both teams living along the 250-mile international corridor between the two cities.
Toronto native and former Wings center Kris Draper called his participation in the ’09 Winter Classic one of the biggest highlights of his career. And while he’s looking forward to skating in the alumni game, he knows the significance of a Detroit-Toronto game.
“It’s going to take the Winter Classic to a whole new level,” Draper said. “Obviously playing at the Big House with as many people as we’re going to get, it’s going to be absolutely amazing. It’s a hockey game, certainly, but I think you can almost term this as an event; this is bigger than just a hockey game. I know the people that want to be a part of it is going to be amazing.”
Growing up in Ontario, south of London, rookie center Cory Emmerton
knows the perils of living in a house divided by the Red Wings-Maple Leafs rivalry.
“I always wanted the Leafs to win because my dad was a big Wings’ fan,” Emmerton said. “I usually just wanted to cheer against him more than anything. I liked Detroit, but I never said I did because obviously my dad would start with ‘Detroit’ and I would say, ‘Nah, Toronto.’ But that was just when I was younger. As I got older I didn’t cheer for any specific team, just liked the NHL and there were probably more teams that I didn’t like than I did like. But yeah, I guess you could say that I grew-up a Leafs’ fan.”
Though Kronwall grew-up in Stockholm, Sweden, he has first-hand knowledge of the Original Six rivalry, as his younger brother, Steffan, was a Leafs’ defenseman from 2005-08.
“It’s just going to be nuts. Whenever we play them in our building or we go there and play them, they’re always the loudest games of the year,” Niklas Kronwall
said. “A lot of fans are into it with the two cities not being too far from each other, so that will be a blast.
“I don’t think the league could have put together a better match-up with the rich history between the two teams and the tradition. I wish we would play them more often because it really is a lot of fun.”
For decades, Michigan Stadium has exclusively been a college football mecca, the home of three Heisman Trophy winners – Tom Harmon, Desmond Howard and Charles Woodson – and Gerald Ford, the 38th President of the United States, who was a center/linebacker on the Wolverines’ 1932 national championship team.
However, the Winter Classic won’t be the first professional “rodeo” for the Big House, which hosted an NFL preseason game between the Detroit Lions and Baltimore Colts on Aug. 22, 1971.
Several Wings, including coach Mike Babcock and centers Henrik Zetterberg
and Justin Abdelkader
, have taken in Wolverines’ games in the past, sitting among the 109,000-plus fervent fans at Michigan Stadium.
“It’s pretty cool to see especially when you first walk in and see all of the fans who are really dedicated to the program,” Zetterberg said. “Having 115,000 people is pretty cool and being in that atmosphere to see a game is pretty cool, so being a part of that, to play a game there, will be good, too.
“It will be different with more of a home game for us than it was in Chicago. It will be exciting and just having the chance to play in front of that many people and having your family and friends there to share the experience with will be pretty cool.”
While attended his first Michigan football game in 2007, Babcock witnessed one of the biggest upsets in sports history when Appalachian State pulled off a stunning win over the Wolverines.
“That was my first one ever. They ran all over them,” Babcock said.
But win or lose, the Wings’ coach knows the important role that Michigan football and Michigan Stadium plays in the region every Saturday afternoon in the fall.
“It’s an event. My daughter goes to Michigan, she things Football Saturday is just fantastic, it’s an event,” he said. “I’ve been to a number of games at Michigan and when you go watch hockey it’s an event. They’ve got something special out there and people who are fortunate enough to go there, it’s special, and for those of us who didn’t go there get to go in and hang out on a weekend and it’s special. … It’s going to be unreal.”