The NHL Winter Classic, the annual New Year’s Day outdoor game, has grown bigger each year since it began in 2008.
Next year, it gets really big.
The NHL hopes that a record 115,000 fans fill Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor on Jan. 1, 2013 to see the Toronto Maple Leafs take on the Detroit Red Wings in the sixth version of the Classic.
The league announced last week that the game would be staged at one of college football’s iconic venues, “The Big House,” on the campus of the University of Michigan.
For the first time, a Canadian team will participate in the Winter Classic. The Maple Leafs and Red Wings, two of the NHL’s original six teams, will meet before what’s expected to be a record crowd that will include plenty of fans from across the border.
“It’s Hockeytown vs. the center of the hockey universe,” Leafs general manager Brian Burke said at a February 9 press conference at Comerica Park in Detroit, home of Major League Baseball’s Detroit Tigers. That ballpark will also be part of the outdoor hockey festival. Comerica, in downtown Detroit, 45 miles from Ann Arbor, will host a series of games, including the Great Lakes Invitational college tournament, minor league and youth league games, and a Leafs-Wings alumni game.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said 115,000 tickets will be available. With the event’s history of overwhelming ticket demand and sellouts each year, that would make it the largest crowd to see a hockey game.
“Even with 115,000 tickets available, we won’t have enough tickets to meet demand,” Bettman said at last week’s press conference.
Said Burke: “I think you better get at the border crossings early if you plan to go to this game.”
Outdoor hockey is nothing new for Michigan Stadium. The Big House hosted the Michigan Wolverines against rival Michigan State Spartans in “The Big Chill” on December 11, 2010. That game drew 104,173, an attendance that was certified by the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest crowd. The recent wave of outdoor stadium hockey attendance began at Michigan Stadium in 2001, when Michigan hosted Michigan State in “The Cold War” that drew 74,000 to “The Big House.”
The Winter Classic has established itself as a marketing bonanza for the league and a ratings winner for NBC, while boasting the hottest tickets in hockey. The build-up to last year’s Classic in Philadelphia between the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers spawned an HBO series “24/7 Flyers-Rangers: Road to the Winter Classic” leading up to the game. The 2011 Classic between the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins in Pittsburgh was the highest-rated NHL regular season broadcast in 36 years.
The Classic has been held at NFL stadiums in Buffalo (Ralph Wilson Stadium, 2008) and Pittsburgh (Heinz Field, 2011), and MLB parks in Chicago (Wrigley Field, 2009), Boston (Fenway Park, 2010), and Philadelphia (Citizens Bank Park, 2012). Now, the Classic is coming to a historic college football stadium.
The University of Michigan board of regents last week approved the NHL’s plan to host the game. The NHL will pay $3 million to lease the facility. Normally, there is no alcohol or advertising allowed inside the stadium, but a special temporary liquor license will be obtained and the league will bring in advertising signage.
Tickets will not be part of Red Wings season ticket packages, but those season ticket holders will be offered an opportunity to purchase tickets. The NHL has yet to set ticket prices, but the league has set up a pre-sale Website to take registration information from fans. That site crashed almost immediately after the February 9 announcement of the game, according to sports blog, SBNation.com.
Chris Matcovich, spokesman for ticket search site TiqIQ.com told TicketNews that last year’s Classic at 43,500-seat Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia had an average ticket price of $521.85 and the “get-in” price 12 hours before the game was $344.
As for the Leafs-Wings match-up, “the demand should be higher in that part of the country but in the end the fact that 115,000 seats must be filled will most likely keep the ‘get-in’ price lower,” Matcovich said.
Detroit-area ticket broker Joel Schwartz, owner of Big Time Worldwide Ticket Agency, told TicketNews that he hopes the NHL takes the size of the venue into account when it sets the prices.
“It’s going to be interesting,” Schwartz said. “The NHL is sort of confident they’ll be able to sell it out. Let’s see if they have a place for brokers in how they price it. Let’s see if they take that into account. If they are charging $200 a ticket, I’m not so sure you’re looking at an automatic sellout. This is three times the size of some of these other places. You have to ask yourself, ‘how many people really want to go to it?’ versus ‘how many people want to make money off it?'”
In Canada, outdoor stadium hockey isn’t all that new. In 2003, the Heritage Classic between the Montreal Canadiens and Edmonton Oilers drew 57,000 to Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium, despite sub-zero temperatures. That was the first outdoor regular season NHL game. Another Heritage Classic was played between the Canadiens and Calgary Flames last year. It drew 41,000 to McMahon Stadium in Edmonton.
“We’ve had it numerous times,” Mario Livitch, owner of Showtime Tickets in Vancouver, told TicketNews. “If they price it affordably, it will draw families and make it the spectacle it should be.”
One team from each of the first three Winter Classics, starting with the Penguins in 2008, went on to win the Stanley Cup the following season. The Red Wings have won 11 Stanley Cups, including four since 1997. The Maple Leafs have won 13, but none since 1967.