NOAH TRISTER,AP Sports Writer
ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) — The Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs will began 2013 by renewing their rivalry at one of North America’s most iconic stadiums.
The two Original Six foes will play in the Winter Classic on Jan. 1 at Michigan Stadium, part of an outdoor showcase that will also include minor league and college hockey games at Detroit’s Comerica Park.
Toronto will become the first Canadian team to play in the Winter Classic when the Maple Leafs and Red Wings face off in Ann Arbor, about 45 miles west of Detroit.
“It’s Hockeytown versus the center of the hockey universe,” Toronto general manager Brian Burke said.
The NHL announced its plan at a news conference Thursday at Comerica, the home of the Detroit Tigers. Later, there was an additional event for media on the field at Michigan Stadium, the football venue that also hosted a college hockey game in 2010 between Michigan and Michigan State. That game set a Guinness World Record for most fans at a hockey game with 104,173.
The league is already talking about setting a new mark when the pros take the ice.
“Even with 115,000 or more tickets available, we still won’t have enough to satisfy the demand,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said.
The Detroit-Toronto rivalry dates to 1927. Although they’re in different conferences right now, the franchises have played 117 playoff games against each other, second only to the 170 meetings between Boston and Montreal.
Buffalo, Chicago, Boston, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia have all hosted the Winter Classic. With the Detroit area hosting next year, Bettman felt the time was right to include a team from Canada.
“We thought that we had built this event to a level where it made sense to do it, and that even from a U.S. network television standpoint, we were comfortable that it would work well,” Bettman said.
There have been two outdoor Heritage Classics north of the border: Montreal at Edmonton in 2003, and Montreal at Calgary last year. The game at Edmonton was the league’s first outdoor regular-season game.
Although Detroit hasn’t hosted the Winter Classic, the Red Wings played in it in 2009, beating the Chicago Blackhawks 6-4 at Wrigley Field, home of baseball’s Chicago Cubs.
While the centerpiece game next January will take place in a college town, the league is making sure to include Detroit, scheduling what it calls the Hockeytown Winter Festival at Comerica. The rink at the ballpark will host college hockey’s Great Lakes Invitational, as well as AHL and OHL games. Youth and high school games are also expected, along with the Red Wings-Maple Leafs alumni game.
The Comerica rink will also be open for public skating.
Michigan Stadium has undergone changes recently, such as the addition of permanent lights. Michigan hosted its first primetime football game last season, beating Notre Dame in dramatic fashion.
“This is just an incredible facility,” Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon said. “We spent $226 million expanding and renovating it, and we use it eight days a year. To the extent we can come up occasionally with an opportunity — and that’s why we’re doing weddings and we’re doing corporate parties. We’re doing a lot of things to try to say, ‘You know what, let’s use this, let people enjoy it, take advantage of it.'”
The possibility of the NHL breaking attendance records brought out Brandon’s competitive side. Michigan’s night football game at the Big House drew an NCAA-record crowd of 114,804.
“If they can figure out a way to do better than that, then they will set the record not only for the largest crowd to ever watch a hockey game, but the largest crowd to ever watch anything in this stadium,” Brandon said. “And then my job will be to figure out a way to beat it.”
Veteran Detroit defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom was at the Big House to promote the Winter Classic. That raised an obvious question: Does it mean he’s definitely planning on coming back for a 21st season in 2012-13?
“We’ll have to wait and see,” Lidstrom said. “It’s only one game, but it’s an intriguing one.”
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