DETROIT — The Great Lakes Invitational will deviate from tradition this December. Instead of playing at Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena, teams will travel from all ends of Michigan and convene at Comerica Park.
That’s right — for the first time in its storied history, what Red Wings netminder Jimmy Howard called one of college hockey’s most prestigious holiday tournaments will move outdoors.
At a Thursday morning press conference in the ballpark’s Tiger Club, Christopher Ilitch, son of Red Wings and Tigers owner Mike Ilitch, formally announced that the semifinals of the event would mark the first-ever hockey games played at Comerica.
College hockey is just one of many levels of play that will be represented during the week-long celebration of the sport, dubbed the “Hockeytown Winter Festival.” Other participants include the Ontario Hockey League, American Hockey League and youth teams.
But Michigan coach Red Berenson says the Great Lakes Invitational will draw many of the 150,000 to 200,000 people that National Hockey League commissioner Gary Bettman anticipates visiting Detroit for hockey the last week of December.
“I think the twist this year … it’ll be unique,” Berenson said. “We’ll see where it goes from there.
Adding the college games into the mix was a natural decision. The Michigan hockey community is a tight-knit one, and Red Wings coach Mike Babcock particularly enjoys sharing ideas with Berenson and makes sure to catch a game at Yost Ice Arena every once in awhile.
“I talk to (Berenson) a lot … just to talk hockey, in general,” Babcock said. “I follow his team. I make it a goal to watch all of the Michigan college hockey (teams). It’s exciting.”
Don’t expect the outdoor edition of the tournament to become a regularity, though. The event is being held in conjunction with the Winter Classic in Ann Arbor, making it the perfect time to venture from the confines of Joe Louis Arena.
“I think it’s a one-time deal,” Berenson said. “I don’t think it’s going to be continued every year. (And) for our players, they look forward to it.”
Michigan Tech, Michigan and Michigan State are the perennial participants in the tournament, and they’re joined by a fourth invitee each year. This year, St. Cloud State had agreed to take part, but it seems the event organizers had their hearts set on an all-Michigan affair for the outdoor tournament. According to St. Cloud State coach Bob Motzko, his team had its invitation revoked. On Thursday, Western Michigan was named the fourth invitee.
“That’s a recent change,” Berenson said. “I don’t know what happened to St. Cloud (State) or what the thinking was. But Western’s a good program and they’ll bring a lot of people.”
The general feeling among the NHL executives and Red Wings players and alumni on hand for Thursday’s announcement was that college hockey will benefit from a tremendous boost in visibility through the event.
Howard, who played his college hockey at Maine, still keeps tabs on the goings-on at that level.
“Come Christmas time, all you hear about is the GLI,” Howard said. “Even with all of the other tournaments going on, it’s very high-profile. With it moving outdoors, it’s only going to make it better for college hockey.”
There’s no mistaking which game will dominate the week-long hockey festival. Signage throughout Comerica Park and Michigan Stadium on Thursday focused on the Big House, where the Red Wings will meet the Toronto Maple Leafs on New Year’s Day.
But that isn’t stopping former Red Wing center Kris Draper from looking forward to the college games that will pit the Wolverines against Michigan Tech and Michigan State against Western Michigan in the semifinals.
“The GLI will be fantastic,” Draper said. “It’s going to be special for everybody at all levels.”
Though the tournament is still almost a year away, the NHL decided to announce the events early because of its “enormity,” as Bettman put it.