The Big House will get the records, but Detroit will get an even bigger boost as the epicenter for one of the biggest hockey celebrations ever conceived.
Hosting the NHL Winter Classic on Jan. 1 provides another opportunity for this city and all southeastern Michigan to pop a little optimistic light through the darkness of its continued economic malaise. The main event — Red Wings vs. Maple Leafs — will be at Michigan Stadium, ensuring a world record for the most to attend a hockey game. But everything else involved in the spectacle will emanate from downtown Detroit.
It’s not a bad consolation prize.
I would have preferred Comerica Park as the home for everything. It’s the quirkiness of a hockey game played in a ballpark that has added to the excitement of the spectacle — merging hockey with baseball was connecting winter with spring. What made the Wings’ first Winter Classic three years ago truly special wasn’t simply that it was played outside, but that it was held at one of the more fabled baseball venues in history — Chicago’s Wrigley Field.
But the Winter Classic has become a significant moneymaker for the NHL as well as a prominent brand recognition vehicle. So the probability of getting more than 115,000 people — maybe even half of them Leafs fans from Ontario — was too tempting to resist.
Give Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon credit. U-M became a landlord, renting out its most iconic physical symbol for $3 million. That’s a nice payday. And although this won’t officially be a university-sponsored event, U-M will reap all the ancillary accolades as the home for the largest single-game mass of hockey fans.
But it’s important to remember this is Detroit’s event. Even though the principal game won’t be played there, the entire calendar of events and the vastness of its scope is a celebration of this city’s unyielding love for the sport that’s the national treasure of our neighbors to the north.
Well, in Detroit, actually, it’s our neighbors to the south.
That’s why there’s no better pairing than the Wings and the Leafs. Emotions are never contrived when it involves two of the NHL’s oldest franchises.
“It’ll be Hockeytown vs. the center of the hockey universe,” declared Leafs general manager Brian Burke.
How’s that for dropping the gloves?
And the event is still almost 11 months away.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman spoke of how giving Detroit this event was in some ways a heartfelt thank-you to the man he called one of the greatest owners the league had ever had.
Mike Ilitch said he was so fired up in anticipation that he wanted to lace up his skates.
“Except that I can’t skate,” he later deadpanned.
Marian Ilitch acknowledged the family’s initial disappointment in not having the main event at Comerica Park. But the NHL more than pacified them with the creation of an overall showcase, dubbed the Hockeytown Winter Festival. It will include a Wings-Leafs alumni game, the very popular holiday tradition Great Lakes Invitational, minor-league games and junior games, as well as youth games. There will be skating for the public.
Long before the Ilitches purchased the Wings almost 30 years ago, they were at the forefront of youth hockey.
“Although Detroit isn’t hosting the main game,” Marian Ilitch said, “the fact that the city will be the central focus of the entire spectacular with all the other events should be very exciting. And it’s also a great source of pride because of our long standing commitment to youth and amateur hockey.
“Having this now does kind of bring things full circle.”