Since 2008, the NHL has been moving outdoors for an afternoon every January to play the Winter Classic. There’s been plenty of winter and plenty of classic.
The five games have been decided by just seven goals, hitting some major venues: Ralph Wilson Stadium, Wrigley Field, Fenway Park, Heinz Field and Citizens Bank Park.
But the magnitude of those events was upstaged by the Michigan and Michigan State hockey teams going at it in their backyard last December. That backyard held 110,000-plus fans who filled Michigan Stadium to the brim.
The Wolverines trounced the Spartans, 5-0, in the Big Chill at the Big House.
Carl Hagelin, the Sodertalje, Sweden product, was one of the heroes that day, scoring a pair of goals. He said it was a game and an environment that he’ll never forget.
“I think we all get goosebumps,” Hagelin said after the Big Chill. “The whole crowd was going crazy. Everyone on the team — everyone just felt great being a part of history, so that’s something we can take with us. We just loved being out there today.”
A year later, he got to relive the experience. But it wasn’t the same.
When Hagelin stepped onto the ice for the Big Chill, he was in a bowl surrounded by 113,411 rabid fans. When Hagelin, now a member of the New York Rangers, entered Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia for the 2012 Winter Classic, he was greeted by 46,967 fans.
In five years, the Winter Classic has averaged 53,045 people in attendance.
The numbers don’t match up.
But now the NHL is putting together a proposal that makes sense. It’s unorthodox, but it’s proven. It’s professional, but it’s college. It’s the Winter Classic, but it’s the Big Chill.
It’s the Winter Classic at the Big House.
The event is anything but official, but Michigan Athletic Director Dave Brandon announced that the NHL had approached him about using Michigan Stadium for the next Winter Classic on Jan. 1, 2013.
(If you’re concerned, trust in TiVo, because it seems that the Rose Bowl would be played the same day.)
“We have been approached by the NHL about utilizing our facility for the 2013 Winter Classic,” Brandon said in a statement released this week. “There are a lot of complex circumstances that need to be ironed out before anything moves forward. We will have more to say if/when something materializes.”
The match-up would likely be the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs — two Original Six rivals. The Red Wings have been in one previous Winter Classic, drawing 4.4 million television viewers in 2009.
But that edition of the Winter Classic, hosted at Wrigley Field against the Chicago Blackhawks, held a capacity crowd of just 40,818. This would up the ante.
The hitch — because there always must be one — is rather mighty.
The Red Wings are owned by mighty Mike Ilitch, who also owns Little Caesar’s Pizza, Detroit Tigers and Comerica Park. If the Winter Classic were to be housed at an outside venue, the profits from ticket sales, merchandise, television rights, vending and the like would be split three ways instead of two.
If Illitch and the NHL struck a deal to play the 2013 Winter Classic at Comerica Park — one of the venues being considered — it would be easy money, but the official capacity is 41,255. The Big House would more than double the attendance, providing a stadium that could seat both the Detroiters and the Canadians coming across the bridge.
Most importantly, it’s been proven that hockey can pack Michigan Stadium. And that was college hockey.
This would be the Big Chill, but it would be bigger. It would be different. It would be classic.
This Sunday, Michigan and Ohio State will battle at the Frozen Diamond Faceoff at Progressive Field in Cleveland. The capacity is 43,441.
The Big House looks over and smiles.
You musn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.
— Nesbitt just quoted Inception. It happened. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter: @stephenjnesbitt.