By Stephen J. Nesbitt, Daily Sports Editor
Published February 9, 2012
DETROIT — After months of speculation, the National Hockey League made its worst-kept secret official — the 2013 Winter Classic is coming to the Big House.
In a Thursday morning press conference, the league announced the Winter Classic at the Big House and the inaugural Hockeytown Winter Festival, which will be held at Comerica Park, the home of the Detroit Tigers.
“The NHL in the Big House — it doesn't get any bigger than that,” said Christopher Ilitch, son of Tigers and Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch.
The announcement came a day after the University regents approved a proposal to lease Michigan Stadium to the NHL from early December to mid-January for $3 million.
The match-up will pit longtime rivals Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs on Jan. 1, 2013 in hopes of eclipsing the world-record attendance mark of 104,073 set at The Big Chill at the Big House.
“It’s Hockeytown versus The Center of the Hockey Universe,” said Toronto President and general manager Brian Burke.
“It’s one of the most historic stadiums in the country,” added Red Wings general manager Ken Holland. “To have two Original Six teams playing at historic setting, it has the makings to be an incredible day.”
It will be red against blue in the Big House, but it’s certainly not The Game. The all-time record between the two clubs currently stands in the Maple Leafs' favor — but only slightly — at 276-275.
The announcement also made official the transition of the 2012 Great Lakes Invitational to Comerica Park, instead of its regular location at Joe Louis Arena. Several other games will be played on the outdoor rink at Comerica Park by teams of the Ontario Hockey League, American Hockey League and various other youth teams.
As in previous years, the Winter Classic will be coupled with HBO’s "24/7" series, a behind-the-scenes documentary series leading up to the game that chronicles the each team's preparation for the New Year’s Day showdown.
“We do a reality show and then we put another element on it, and that’s playing in the elements,” said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. “So this is the ultimate reality show.”
At a secondary press conference at Michigan Stadium on Thursday, Bettman handed Michigan Athletic Director Dave Brandon a $250,000 donation from the NHL’s charitable gifts fund. Brandon said the gift would be deposited into the general student scholarship fund.
The timing of the NHL’s announcement is atypical, considering that previous announcements about the event's location had typically been made in late summer or fall.
“That’s frankly because of the enormity of the event,” Bettman said.
It’ll take time to sell 115,000 tickets in two countries — or to turn away the latecomers.
“Even at 115,000, we’re going to have demand for tickets that we’re not going to be able to satisfy,” Bettman added.
Red Wings coach Mike Babcock is no stranger to Ann Arbor. His daughter Alexandra is a student at the University, and the coach has been to a few hockey games at Yost Ice Arena and football games at the Big House.
“Football Saturday out there is hard to beat,” Babcock said, smiling.
“(The Big House,) it’s grandiose, it grabs ya. The first time I went in it didn’t have fans. When you go in with fans, it’s something else. ... It’ll be spectacular.”
The biggest hurdle for finalizing the Winter Classic at the Big House was taking the match-up away from Detroit yet still appeasing Mike Ilitch. Ultimately, implementing the secondary rink at Comerica Park for the Hockeytown Winter Festival and the ability to fit over 50,000 fans in a stadium won the owner over.
“It’s going to be great,” Ilitch said. “I think it’s going to build some confidence into the city of Detroit.”
“What matters to me,” Babcock added, “is that playing in Ann Arbor was going to give more people a chance to see it and I think a bigger stage for us to celebrate hockey.”
The NHL is expecting an attendance of 115,000 at Michigan Stadium on New Year’s Day, as well as a total up to 200,000 participants and fans entering Detroit for the festivities at Comerica Park.
“Based on what we’re doing for this Winter Classic and Detroit, I’m not sure if anyone’s going to be able to top it,” Bettman said. “(That’s) both in terms of the number of events and the sheer enormity of how fans can connect to it.”