ANN ARBOR, Mich.
-- Jimmy Howard
was playing for the Grand Rapids Griffins of the American Hockey League when the Red Wings beat the rival Chicago Blackhawks in the 2009 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic.
He thinks that he watched that matchup -- played in Chicago's Wrigley Field -- from his apartment in Grand Rapids. However, Howard can't be sure of that because he isn't even sure whether the Griffins were on the road or at home. He'll probably remember his whereabouts on Thursday a little better.
Along with a host of NHL dignitaries, media and four Red Wings teammates, Howard stood at midfield of Michigan Stadium on Thursday afternoon for the second of two press conferences to announce the NHL's matchup for the 2013 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic -- pitting the Red Wings against the Toronto Maple Leafs in a game that could break the world attendance record for a hockey game.
"It's very special," said Howard, who will likely start the game barring injury. "To be able to have it here and have a chance to break the attendance record, it's cool to think about. Even though it's still a long ways away, I can't wait for it to get here."
Turns out the stadium isn't exactly a new setting for Howard, who said he takes in at least one Michigan football game there each fall -- usually right after training camp ends. He remembers what it looked like before the school put in two multi-million dollar luxury suites on each side of the facility and also knows what kind of difference that made in noise level.
"This is going to be crazy with this many people being able to come to this building," said Howard, who is currently sidelined with a broken index finger on his blocker hand. "Being here for football games you see how nuts it is. I can just imagine once you get 115,000 hockey fans in here what it's going to actually be like. Now that they put the suites in and all the boxes, the sound stays right here. It used to go right out of the top, but with the way they designed the suites the sound bounces back down. It's a lot louder in here now."
And it's probably going to be deafening for this matchup, considering how many Canadian fans are expected to cross the nearby border to attend. There could be upwards of 50,000 blue-clad Maple Leafs fans in attendance and even more wearing red -- a color that's worn by Michigan's hated rival to the South, the Ohio State Buckeyes.
Usually, "Big Blue" is a phrase used by Michigan fans to describe their beloved Wolverines -- but in this instance the home crowd will be wearing red and white. It's like flipping Michigan's season-ending rivalry on its ear.
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"That's true ... with Ohio State," Howard said of red being an enemy color at The Big House. "Well, I guess that's going to have to change for one day."
And what a day it's going to be. The stadium officially holds 109,901 for football games but the NHL is planning on having 115,000 for the Winter Classic. That will almost triple the crowd that packed into Wrigley to watch the Hawks and Wings three years ago.
"I've been to many football games here so I've got a little experience, but it's going to be way different to actually play down here and have our fans here cheering for us," said Red Wings forward Henrik Zetterberg
, who was also at Michigan Stadium for the announcement. "Playing in Chicago was pretty cool, to have that many fans ... and we're going to ([far exceed] it here. It's going to be pretty crazy."
Star center Pavel Datsyuk
"It's big again and I'm so happy to be in this event again," he said. "Now we're like at home, not in Chicago. It's more comfortable. It's [my] second experience. I think I will be more comfortable with this one. But in a stadium like this, I can't explain. I don't have any English words to explain. Maybe I have a few Russian ... but not English yet."
Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom
didn't have that problem. Though he's still deciding each off-season whether he wants to continue playing or retire, the 41-year old star defenseman had no problem imagining what it would be like to play a game in a stadium he usually enjoys for its football atmosphere.
"It will be an awesome feeling coming out of that tunnel, stepping onto the field and onto the ice," said Lidstrom, who might play in the NHL Alumni Showdown at Comerica Park in Detroit if he does opt to retire. "I've been to many games here, football games, but never really thought about playing a hockey game here. This will be something special for all the guys."