The NHL is taking its talents to the Big House.
In a deal that is all but finalized, the University of Michigan will be housing the 2013 Winter Classic. The NHL is seeking to break the record attendance that was set in the first Winter Classic in Buffalo in 2008. This would also only be the second time that the Winter Classic features a Western Conference team.
Detroit would be the home team, but there is still some debate with whom they will be playing. Major reports are rumoring the Toronto Maple Leafs: The Maple Leafs are another Original Six team, and the NHL loves to market those teams. Out of the first five Winter Classics, all four American Original Six teams have been present, with two Expansion Six teams as well.
However, the Maple Leafs would be the first Canadian team to play in the Winter Classic. In 2011, the NHL debuted the Heritage Classic, an outdoor game featuring two Canadian teams. The Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers played in the game, but the game was not renewed for the 2011-2012 campaign.
Hockey purists believe that this game would be a match made in heaven. Before the expansion in 1998, Detroit and Toronto were in the Central division. The two teams played numerous regular season and playoff series together, and developed some extremely bad blood. Bringing the two teams on the NHL’s biggest stage would rekindle the fire that fuels each team's hatred for each other. In addition, if a realignment agreement is reached, then the two would most likely be in the same conference again.
Another reason to have the two teams face off is that the Red Wings are the Yankees of American hockey. People immediately know what team has the wing and the wheel. Detroit is also the most successful of the American teams, winning eleven Stanley Cups.
In Canada, the Maple Leafs have the strongest following, including America. While they do not have the championships, Leafs fans come out and make their team arguably the most recognizable team in Canada. This matchup would be America’s team vs. Canada’s team.
Some fans would disagree with the purists of the game though. The Winter Classic, including this proposed 2013 game, will have had three out of twelve teams become repeats. Pittsburgh played in the 2008 and 2011 Winter Classic, Detroit played in the 2009 and will play in the 2013 games and Philadelphia played in the 2010 and this year's Winter Classic. The NHL has shown a bias towards the east coast and to large markets, and rightfully so, since that is where most of the money would come from.
However, if the NHL wants to become a Big Four sport once again and gain popularity in America, then the NHL needs to expand to the smaller markets. The big market fans are going to watch the game regardless of who is playing because they love the sport of hockey. The mid-major markets may only watch the game if their team is in it, because hockey may not be their number one sport.
The NHL needs to turn these mid-major markets into hockey towns if they want to compete with the NFL, or even the MLB and NBA. More coverage means more fans, and more fans means more money. What bigger stage to market these teams than the Winter Classic?
The NHL has a gem in the Winter Classic. By putting the game in the Big House, it is sure to strike gold.