Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Winter Classic '13: Ann Arbor vs. Detroit

The internet's been abuzz over the last few weeks as rumors of a Detroit-Toronto Winter Classic in 2013 have been all but confirmed. According to TSN's Mark Masters and the Toronto Sun Leafs GM Brian Burke has said "certainly there is a lot of smoke, and where there is a lot of smoke, there is usually fire." 

At this point it doesn't make sense to argue about who the Wings should play. While there are some who'd rather see San Jose, it seems Toronto is going to draw an invite from the league. That leaves only one thing to debate; location.

The two candidates here are Comerica Park in downtown Detroit and Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor. Atmospheres will differ at each site, that much is undeniable. 

The Big House is surrounded by houses brimming with students, houses where kids barbeque on the lawn, hang out on the porch, and climb out of their windows to drink on the roof. There is nothing like a football Saturday in Ann Arbor. Over 100,000 people coming together to enjoy the history and tradition that one of the greatest football programs in the county brings with it. The Winter Classic would provide a similar backdrop. Over 100,000 people in one place to celebrate the history of the game, watching two of the most storied franchises in the sport take the ice and play the game the way it originated. This is pond hockey on the biggest of stages.

Holding the game in downtown Detroit doesn't eliminate tailgating, nor is that all that the Classic should revolve around. While the opportunity is still available, the tailgating would have to take place in parking garages or on surface lots. The number of people in attendance will necessarily be less if the game is in Detroit, and the people traveling to the game will be less of a spectacle in and of themselves than they would be if the game was at the Big House.

Essentially, you're looking at either holding the game in the traditional downtown of a big city or in a gigantic small town. This is skyscrapers versus houses and concrete versus front lawns. Personally, I think the small town feel fits the Winter Classic better. If we're supposed to be honoring the origins of hockey, there's no better way to do so than with the ultimate pond game.

That's not to say that holding the game at the Big House will be easy. Per The Malik Report, U of M Athletic Director Dave Brandon recently spoke with the Free Press and outlined some of the challenges, including students being gone over winter break and fans having loyalties split if Michigan plays a bowl game on New Year's Day.

First things first. Michigan played in a BCS bowl game this past season. Expectations are high in Ann Arbor once again. Unless it's the Rose Bowl, the goal should be to play in a game after New Year's Day. Go undefeated or lose one game and boom, problem solved.

If I was Dave Brandon I'd be bending over backwards to get the NHL to ink a contract with U of M. The Athletic Department sustains itself primarily off of football revenues. Football plays six home games each season. That means that there is a stadium built to seat over 110,000 people that sits dormant a vast majority of the year. Opening it for one extra day, regardless of what percent of the gate receipt revenue goes to U of M, would practically be free money in the bank account of the Athletic Department. 

I don't think selling tickets will be a challenge regardless of whether students are involved. There should be enough interest from Wings fans and Toronto followers to sell out Michigan Stadium, though pairing tickets for the Winter Classic with a ticket to the Great Lakes Invitational could help bring students back before break is over and re-create the football Saturday feel. 

This brings us to the alternative plan, and one which I'm definitely in favor of. Two outdoor rinks, one at Comerica Park in Detroit and the other at the Big House in Ann Arbor. The Detroit rink could host the Great Lakes Invitational (for the uninitiated/uninterested, it's an annual college hockey tournament) and the Detroit-Toronto alumni game while the Ann Arbor rink would host the Winter Classic itself.

This brings people to restaurants and business in downtown Detroit while doing the same for Ann Arbor. Commuting to the game shouldn't be much of an issue because it's likely that the majority of attendees will be  from the metro Detroit suburbs, meaning they'll have to hop on a freeway and drive to get to either Detroit or Ann Arbor.

One final issue; sightlines. I've heard that watching hockey in a baseball stadium can be downright terrible. While I haven't experienced this personally, I can see how many lower bowl seats in Comerica Park would be situated such that you'd probably be looking at the boards, not over the boards. Holding a game like the alumni game that's not critical but is still entertaining seems like an acceptable alternative. Besides, if Steve Yzerman dons the winged wheel again it just seems appropriate for it to be in Detroit in a stadium that has the Detroit skyline rising high behind it. Sightlines won't be much of an issue at the Big House thanks to the gently sloping bowl shape of the stands. Further proof is below; that's a picture from my seats at last year's Big Chill at the Big House.
 I'll make no bones about it, I do prefer Ann Arbor as the site for the Winter Classic. I've been to an outdoor hockey game there and it was fantastic, a truly remarkable experience for a hockey fan. The atmosphere was great and the surrounding area is made to handle 100,000+ fans six times a year, and a seventh wouldn't be an issue. At the end of the day, however, all that matters is that we get a Winter Classic in the state of Michigan and that the Wings are in it.


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