ANN ARBOR, Mich. — As the novelty of playing hockey outdoors seems to be wearing off, the NHL is hoping bigger is better at the Winter Classic.
The league has been playing at least one game outdoors annually since 2008 other than last season because of the lockout. The popularity of the concept is being tested by putting six games in the elements this season.
With a lot more fans and two Original Six teams, including one from Canada for the first time, the NHL is confident the 2014 Winter Classic will be different.
“Those are two distinguishing factors,” NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said. “It’ll be special.”
The league said 105,500 tickets have been sold for the game today between the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs at Michigan Stadium (1 p.m., Ch. 2, Ch. 5). That almost doubles the average of 53,045 spectators who watched the first five Winter Classics.
If every person who paid for a ticket braves temperatures in the teens on a snowy afternoon, a record will be broken.
In the same football stadium, known as the Big House, Michigan and Michigan State set a hockey attendance record of 104,173 in 2010.
“If you haven’t been to a football Saturday here, then you should put it on your bucket list,” Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said Tuesday after a brief practice. “It’s the best sporting event. I’ve been to the Olympic Games, the World Series, the Stanley Cup. This is probably the best sporting event I’ve ever been to, bar none.
“Can it transfer into hockey? I assume it can.
Some players will borrow a practice from football, putting eye black on their cheeks to help cope with glare.
“I remember back to Wrigley Field,” in the 2009 Winter Classic, “I thought it looked kind of silly when guys were doing it,” Red Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwall said with black smudges under both eyes. “But it does actually help.”
And like some football games, shoveling might be necessary to clear the playing surface.
Skaters with shovels cleared the ice before both teams practiced on Tuesday and they might be busier during the game. A winter weather advisory is calling for 4 to 6 inches to fall from this morning through Thursday morning in Ann Arbor.
“A little bit of snow just adds to the romance of the game,” NHL Chief Operating Officer John Collins said.
In Detroit on Tuesday, Tomas Holmstrom scored the only goal of the shootout to give the Detroit Red Wings’ alumni a 6-5 victory and a sweep of two games in the NHL’s Alumni Showdown outside at Comerica Park before an announced crowd 33,425.
Bryan McCabe tied it at 5 for Toronto with 2 seconds left to cap the Maple Leafs comeback from a 5-1 deficit.
Detroit won the first game, 5-4.
The second game, played in two 25-minute halves, featured Hall of Famer and long-time Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman, who is the general manger of the Tampa Bay Lightning and the GM of Canada’s Olympic Team; Brendan Shanahan, an NHL vice president; and Nicklas Lidstrom for Detroit, and Hall of Famers Darryl Sittler, Doug Gilmour, Lanny McDonald, Mike Gartner and Joe Nieuwendyk for Toronto.
Lidstrom had a goal and an assist and Shanahan also scored.
Other Hall of Famers who suited up for Detroit were Chris Chelios, who scored a goal, Larry Murphy, Paul Coffey, Slava Fetisov, Igor Larionov, Mark Howe and Dino Ciccarelli.
Hall of Famer Scotty Bowman coached the Red Wings, and Pat Quinn directed the Maple Leafs.
The first game, played in two 20-minute halves, featured 74-year-old University of Michigan coach Red Berenson and two-time Stanley Cup winner Martin Lapointe for the Red Wings, and three-time Stanley Cup champion Mike Krushelnyski for the Maple Leafs Alumni. Brad May scored a goal for the Leafs.