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Posted on Sat, Feb 11, 2012 : 5:59 a.m.

NHL counts on Canadians, not Ann Arbor residents, for Winter Classic success

By Pete Cunningham

The NHL Winter Classic is coming to Ann Arbor, but guess what Ann Arbor? The NHL doesn’t care if you buy a ticket.

You’re the kid with the coolest house on the block, and the NHL wants to use your pool for a party. Show up if you want, but it's not mandatory.


Detroit Red Wings general manager Ken Holland, left, and Toronto Maple Leafs president and general manager Brian Burke talked Thursday about the NHL Winter Classic.

Associated Press

“We didn’t throw darts to put this together,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said Thursday at Comerica Park. Though Bettman will never be forgiven for taking hockey from fans for the 2004-05 season, the way he’s handled the annual New Year’s Day outdoor extravaganza has been nothing short of genius since its inception in 2008.

Bringing the Winter Classic to Michigan Stadium and ancillary events to Comerica Parkincluding the Great Lakes Invitational — is his latest masterpiece.

The NHL wants to break the world record for attendance at a hockey game that Michigan and Michigan State set in the Big Chill at the Big House in 2010, and he needed the Big House to do it. He also plans on breaking Michigan’s record attendance of 114,804, set at the Michigan-Notre Dame night football game in September.

And they will do just that even if every University of Michigan student, season ticket holder and football fan is in Pasadena or on their couch watching the Michigan football team play in the Rose Bowl. That’s because Bettman has figured out a way to break the records despite playing 40 minutes away from the “host” city in a college town that normally resembles a ghost town on New Year’s Day.

He's including the game's best insurance policy: The Toronto Maple Leafs.

Red Wings fans will show up, no question. But even if they don't, one of the more rabid fan bases would surely pick up the slack.

"(The NHL) said, 'can you sell 30,000 tickets?' I said, 'I need 48 hours.' They said, 'can you sell 50,000?' I said, 'I need 72 hours,'" Maple Leafs general manager and president Brian Burke said Thursday.

Burke was joking, but Leafs fans’ dedication is no laughing matter. I lived in Toronto for four years, and it became clear early on that the fans take their hockey seriously. Yell “Go, Leafs, Go” on a hot summer day in August on any city street and you’ll get cars honking, and loud responses from passers by.

They’re insulted by Detroit’s self-proclaimed “Hockeytown” status.

This for a team that hasn’t won a Stanley Cup since 1967 or been to the playoffs since 2004. I had a Canadian friend once visit and sabotage his chances with a very attractive blonde, who was way out of his league, because she jokingly asked him to admit the Leafs suck.

It was a deal breaker. It doesn't make sense, but it's true.

“It’s Hockeytown versus the center of the hockey universe,” Burke said.

And you’re going to see a lot of Maple Leafs blue around Ann Arbor in the days leading up to the event. I’ve had friends fly to Atlanta to watch Leafs regular-season games because it was cheaper than getting a ticket at the Air Canada Centre.

Plus, you don’t need to travel four-and-a-half hours to get to Leaf Nation. The Detroit River is the Berlin Wall of hockey, separating two different loyalties.

Which brings me to Detroit, the city which many, myself included, figured would be a more logical choice to hold the game. Who needs more of an economic boost than Detroit? As cool as setting the attendance record at the Big House is, it’s not at the center of the city’s downtown like Comerica Park. The sight of skyscrapers surrounding a hockey rink is one that never gets old.

Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch wanted to keep the entire event downtown, but the NHL creating a week-long Hockeytown Winter Festival — which will include the Michigan hockey team playing in an outdoor GLI — is an incredible compromise, estimated to draw between 150,000 to 200,000 people to Detroit in the days leading up to the game at Michigan Stadium.

Bettman and Ilitch described splitting up the event as the best of both worlds. If everything were in Detroit, or in Ann Arbor, everything wouldn’t have been as feasible. The NHL normally puts a clamp down on the Winter Classic ice surfaces, as it will on the one in Michigan Stadium, but that won’t be the case at Comerica Park.

“We wanted to make sure we were doing the right thing for the city of Detroit. Setting up two rinks is a huge undertaking in terms of manpower and expense, but we were committed because the Ilitches were committed to making sure that as hosts Detroit was properly included, and we think we’re doing it in a big way,” Bettman said.

As for the GLI, being outside for four games over two days is different than bundling up for one game, but Red Wings general manager Ken Holland said the alternative would seem foolish.

“People would think we were nuts if we had the Great Lakes Invitational over at Joe Louis Area when we have this beautiful, once-in-a-generation set up here at Comerica Park,” Holland said.

As for sports purists who don’t want to see Michigan Stadium rented to the highest bidder because the idea of corporate advertising plastered all over the Big House makes them queasy: Get over it.

The University of Michigan will receive up to $3 million for leasing the space. Athletic director Dave Brandon estimates the spinoff revenue for surrounding businesses to exceed the $14 million normally generated on football Saturdays. Plus, the NHL donated $250,000 to the university’s general scholarship fund.

If you want to stand on your porch yelling at a bunch of Canadians to get off your lawn like a grumpy old man, feel free. But there’s no denying that the university and surrounding community will benefit greatly.

So get ready, Ann Arbor. The NHL is throwing a party in your town. Your attendance is optional.

Contact Pete Cunningham at Follow him on Twitter @petcunningham.



Wed, Feb 22, 2012 : 8:34 a.m.

whatever and whoever it takes to fill the "BIG HOUSE" Ii don't care as long as i get my ticket.


Sun, Feb 12, 2012 : 6:10 p.m.

Interesting to read by some comments that people are having a hard time wrapping their minds around this event since all they know is football Saturday's... This will NOT be an event where 100K people drive in, tailgate, then go home. This is an event more akin to Art Fair...people will book up all the hotels, stay a few days, dine out for all their meals...this is not designed for the locals...and people aren't getting it yet.


Sun, Feb 12, 2012 : 1:52 p.m.

"The University of Michigan will receive up to $3 million for leasing the space" Will all of that go to the athletic dept alone? I understand $250,000 will go to the university's general scholarship fund.


Sun, Feb 12, 2012 : 1:27 a.m.

Maybe the City of Ann Arbor could have our own VAT (value added tax) for the week?


Sun, Feb 12, 2012 : 12:02 a.m.

" fan is in Pasadena or on their couch watching the Michigan football team play in the Rose Bowl..." If Michigan plays in the Rose Bowl that means they did not qualify for the championship game on January 7, 2013. Watching a team play for maybe a number 4 or 5 ranking is not compelling sports tv. I'm a staunch Michigan fan but if they are not playing I don't watch college football. The only sports product on the market that is worse than college football is basketball (college or pro). Agreed, the NHL is not counting on Ann Arborites to sell out the stadium. Much like the U-M does not count on Ann Arborites to sell out the stadium for football games.


Sat, Feb 11, 2012 : 11:25 p.m.

There will be a Canadian invasion - trust me - my family has already started emailing me about coming down for the game. GO LEAFS GO!


Sat, Feb 11, 2012 : 10:31 p.m.

I am a Canadian and I will definitely be making a visit. Go Leafs Go!!!


Sat, Feb 11, 2012 : 9:38 p.m.

New Years day in AA is an interesting day. How many restaurants/businesses are open on that day? Its a gamble for businesses that decide to open that day to take advantage of the 100K people coming to town. Interesting to see how much of Main Street opens.


Sat, Feb 11, 2012 : 7:44 p.m.

Where does Brandon keep coming up with this number of $14 million in revenue for local businesses. This would require every fan to spend an average of $121 at local businesses (in addition to tickets and concessions inside the stadium). I agree that there is a lot of money dropped in A2 on gamedays but I am a little skeptical of this number. It seems that most people come in to town, tailgate for the day, and leave after the game. I hope I am wrong.


Sun, Feb 12, 2012 : 3:06 a.m.

Also $60 for a tank of gas is probably included in that number.

Rob MI

Sat, Feb 11, 2012 : 9:40 p.m.

I expect hotel revenue is included here, which, in and of itself might be misleading because of New Year's Eve and the artificially high prices hotels will have already set for 12/31, this event notwithstanding. Given long waits at the border and an early game, I would expect many Canadians coming to the game would get here the night before. Most people come to town, tailgate, attend, and leave....for football, where most of the crowd is Michigan-based to start with. This is an entirely different animal.


Sat, Feb 11, 2012 : 6:54 p.m.

Is there any word on whether U of M season hockey/football ticket holders will have a chance at tickets? My guess is that since they are renting out the stadium, the NHL will offer Wings/Leafs fans priority tickets and then other NHL ticket holders second chance.


Sat, Feb 11, 2012 : 7:14 p.m.

Sorry to sound negative...but the NHL is not interested in the UM football or hockey fan base...they are interested in all those NHL fans who will pay hundreds for these tickets


Sat, Feb 11, 2012 : 7:10 p.m.

UM fans will not have any priority for this one. It's sheer NHL. The only exception "might" be the most expensive luxury suite holders.


Sat, Feb 11, 2012 : 6:27 p.m.

The more Canadians the better. That brings extra revenue to the city AND the state. A typical UM football game is mostly Michigan residents. If this event brings more from outside the state that means extra tax revenue from people who are not residents of the state. More tips for servers, more hours for hotel employees, more profits for retailers. There are also the people the NHL will bring in to set up the rinks and the television crews. The city of Detroit and Ann Arbor should wrap their arms around this, and try to make this a chance to shine as an area and state as happened during Super Bowl 40. The only potential issue I see is something NOBODY can control, the weather.

Chris Dooch

Sat, Feb 11, 2012 : 5:50 p.m.

just to let you know - there are many wingnuts in Windsor, Essex County, Chattam, London etc. There are leaf fans (and Canadien fans also) but the detroit river is not the berlin wall of hockey. Good ole Budd Lynch is from Windsor. And Burke as usual was wrong 30,000 tickets for a leafs game would sell in a few hours. These people have an illness called blue and white disease.


Sat, Feb 11, 2012 : 9:31 p.m.

Budd lived in Dearborn for a long time, too. I was his paperboy. Great guy!!


Sat, Feb 11, 2012 : 2:24 p.m.

Wonder what the NHL is going to set the ticket prizes at? Seeing that this is after the holidays, might have to go a little lighter on holiday gifts!!


Sun, Feb 12, 2012 : 1:25 a.m.

UofM rented for $3million sooooo.


Sat, Feb 11, 2012 : 8:02 p.m.

@Halter, I've been wondering about that... How can they manage to keep their ticket prices so high? When I watch the games (most of them since December) I'm always flabbergasted at how many wide open sections of seats are there without anyone's butt parked in them. Especially right on the glass. Do people buy the tickets and then just not go or something? I'd love to go to some games....


Sat, Feb 11, 2012 : 3:32 p.m.

By the way current Wings prices range up to 235-- expect much higher than that


Sat, Feb 11, 2012 : 3:28 p.m.

Very very high. Past classics Tix have basically cost between 75 and 250 bucks.


Sat, Feb 11, 2012 : 1:59 p.m.

Looking forward to all those Canadian quarters.


Sun, Feb 12, 2012 : 1:24 a.m.

Exchange rate is .9984 today.


Sat, Feb 11, 2012 : 1:39 p.m.

I will be hosting my Canadian friends this coming New Years!

Pete Cunningham

Sat, Feb 11, 2012 : 2:45 p.m.

Me too. I've already started "Canadian proofing" my home.


Sat, Feb 11, 2012 : 12:28 p.m.

100% agree with you...Can't wait myself. The corresponding GLI outside at Comerica is a different creature. As someone who has had College Hockey at the Joe tickets since its inception, I guarantee I am not going to go sit outside and freeze at CoPa for 4 games. That has nothing to do with "NHL spirit" and 100% to do with "Illich appeasement" and except for the championship game CoPa will be empty for the three other games. As to the Wings in my is sheer awesome.


Sat, Feb 11, 2012 : 2:23 p.m.

Agree, being outside for two hockey games over 6 hours doesn't necessarily seem that fun to me. I love taking my kids down to the games, but it is asking a lot for them to be outside for that long. I think this is a bad idea. Maybe play the GLI championship game outside, but the 2 semifinal games and the consolation game at the Joe.