Until very recently, Red Wings forward Pavel Datsyuk had never stepped inside Michigan Stadium despite playing all 10 of his NHL seasons in Detroit.

American football isn’t too popular in Datsyuk’s native Russia.

On Thursday afternoon, Datsyuk walked out of the tunnel normally reserved for those wearing winged helmets and cleats and onto the field at the Big House, where he marveled at the expansive bleachers that the NHL is hoping can fit upwards of 115,000 people on New Year’s Day for the 2013 Winter Classic.

Jan. 1, 2013 is going to be an experience that even one of the world’s best players is excited for.

“My first reaction was to pick up the phone and call Russia to tell people, ‘You need to be here,’ ” Datsyuk said. “It’s going to be unbelievable, it’s a feeling you can’t explain — like a big, big holiday.”

During Michigan Athletic Director Dave Brandon’s official announcement that the game will pit two of the NHL’s Original Six teams — the Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit — against each other, Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg were whispering to each other and gazing up at the luxury suites hundreds of feet up.

Later on, Datsyuk took his stick and ran around the artificial turf, flipping an imaginary puck towards the goals that had been set up on the field and pointing out to his teammates where the blue lines should be.

Datsyuk is already preparing for a game that’s 11 months away.

“I can’t even imagine how it is going to be,” Datsyuk said. “I like the Winter Classic, I like to play outside like when we were kids — I love it.”

Unlike Datsyuk, goaltender Jimmy Howard has been to quite a few Michigan football games. He went to nearby Pioneer High School when he played for the United States Development Team, and he tries to go at least once a year.

“They’re always fun,” Howard said. “I like to get here a little bit early to watch the people funnel in here and see how quickly this place fills up. It really is amazing.”

Even without fans in attendance, the scene was a bit surreal. In the same spot where Michigan junior quarterback Denard Robinson makes defenders look foolish, Zetterberg laughed at questions regarding a Red Wings banner for the players to slap as they exited the tunnel. He gathered little rubber pellets on his stick from the field’s artificial turf.

Like Datsyuk, Zetterberg was already starting to think about the game. Breaking the attendance record — or attempting to break it — for most spectators at a hockey game will inspire that type of reaction.

“It’s too bad it’s almost a year away,” Zetterberg said. “You almost want to do it in a week or two. It’ll be exciting. We were all fired up when we heard the rumors, we were really hoping it would happen.

“In the last few days, when we knew, it was hard to keep it a secret.”

Of course, participating in the Winter Classic means participating in “24/7”, HBO’s reality show that follows the two teams around in the weeks leading up to the game. The prospect of dealing with an ever-present camera drew mixed reviews.

“I don’t mind it, I think it will be fun being on HBO,” Howard said. “I like to tune in and see behind the scenes of other clubs, and I think the fans enjoy it too.”

Added Zetterberg: “I talked to some other guys that have been through the experience, and they said you get used to it after a while.”

In his choppy English, Datsyuk dropped a hint to the producers of the show, saying that following him around with a camera would remind the viewers of a silent film.

It’s all part of the price you pay when playing in the biggest game in NHL history.

“It’s a cross-border thing with two Original Six teams that have a great rivalry already,” said Red Wings coach Mike Babcock. “You’ve got two countries excited. We’re fired up.”

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