By Stu Hackel
With today's announcement that the next Winter Classic will be in Ann Arbor, Michigan, accompanied by a large number of other events in downtown Detroit, the NHL and the Red Wings are poised to take this event to a new level. This won't be just a very special hockey game that has been designed to broaden the sport's appeal through TV exposure on New Year's Day. This is going to be an unprecedented celebration of hockey in a place that is not only one of America's foremost centers of the sport, but also one of America's most troubled cities, one that is fighting quite hard to rebound against economic hardship and an awful reputation.
The most telling remarks made at today's news conference were those of Detroit Mayor Dave Bing, a former NBA star, who acknowledged that he doesn't always have a reason to smile in his current job. But he was smiling when he spoke at the Comerica Park event this morning because through the Red Wings and the NHL, this event can help address his city's ongoing fiscal issues and its image.
"Their love, their compassion, their devotion to this city is unmatched," Bing said of the Illitch family. "I'm just happy they are part of this community, with their vision, with their leadership and with the risks that they take. We are all the beneficiaries of that....The things you are doing for Detroit are something we're very appreciative of."
The Winter Classic could very easily have been just an Ann Arbor-only scene. The big matchup between the Red Wings and Maple Leafs, two Original Six teams with a terrific and historic rivalry, could have been all this event was about, taking place out in the Big House, the massive stadium on the University of Michigan campus, 45 minutes outside of Detroit. That would have been sufficient to generate the headlines the NHL is seeking by staging the game in front of the largest crowd ever for a hockey match. The league could have bypassed Detroit altogether.
You can tell from Bing's remarks, however, that the Illitch family, who own both the Red Wings and baseball's Tigers, wanted to insure that the city itself would be an essential part of things. And it will be, with what they're calling The Hockeytown Winter Festival starting in mid-December.
The rink that will be built downtown at Comerica Park will host the Wings-Leafs alumni game, as well as matches between teams representing every level of hockey. Over a quarter of a million fans are expected to witness youth, high school, and sled hockey games as well as an AHL tilt between the top farm teams of the Wings and Leafs, and a pair of OHL major junior hockey matches. Plus, the Great Lakes Invitational collegiate tournament featuring Michigan Tech, the University of Michigan, Michigan State and Western Michigan University will move from the Joe Louis Arena to Comerica and be played outdoors there.
As in the past Winter Classics, there will be open skating for the general public. The rink will be available for corporate rentals, and there are plans for a celebrity game. It will all be downtown.
This range of activities, however, is unprecedented for the Winter Classic -- and perhaps for hockey itself. It certainly is for Detroit. Even a basketball guy like Bing had to admit that hockey has surpassed all the other sports in his town. And the Wings are calling this the inaugural Hockeytown Winter Festival, which means they intend for it to be something they do again.
From the point of view of what it means for the NHL, the 2013 Winter Classic will have the added benefit of, for the first time, including a Canadian-based club in this marquee date. There has long been suspicion that the league would be reluctant to do so, since the home market for one of the teams won't be contributing to the always important TV rating this game will achieve on NBC. That doesn't seem to be an issue any longer, at least not for the 2013 game.
And you can bet that the massive support the Leafs have in Ontario will guarantee the stadium in Ann Arbor will sell out. As Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke said (video), "The league asked me originally if I could sell 40,000 tickets and I said, 'I need 48 hours.' And then they called back and said, 'What about 50,000 tickets?' I said, 'I need 72 hours.' Leaf Nation will show up, and in blue and we'll make a lot of noise."
But beyond the huge crowd, this whole event demonstrates the NHL's willingness to go beyond its own sphere of interest to benefit a larger purpose. It has bought into the Illitch family's vision of what this event can mean and that it is good for more than just the league and its teams. It will be great for the game and great for Detroit.
Detroit's ailments aren't going to be solved by the Winter Classic and the Hockeytown Winter Festival, of course. They are complicated problems and have been around for decades. Seismic changes in the U.S. economy and the auto industry over time have caused the city and the region to suffer badly. But those who live there have never given up on reviving it. They have had small and scattered successes that continue and grow. Considering how much Detroit has given to hockey over the years, it's admirable that the Illitch family, the NHL and the players will now be part of that effort.
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