NHL dreaming big for 2013 Winter Classic

DETROIT -- The images on the television screens at the 2013 Winter Classic announcement at Comerica Park flashed scenes from downtown Detroit. The classic buildings. A quick shot of the People Mover. A Detroit Fire Department engine.

In the front row of the press conference, Detroit mayor Dave Bing watched it all. Near him, Detroit Red Wings and Tigers owner Mike Ilitch, one of the great ambassadors of the Motor City, watched, too.

And then came the official announcement from NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. The biggest game in the NHL’s regular season is headed to the Big House. In Ann Arbor, Mich., 45 minutes away from downtown Detroit.

It wasn’t a surprise but it still took some convincing to those who care most about downtown Detroit that it was the right solution.

“I wanted to stay [in Detroit]. Comerica was first. You feel that’s your responsibility. That’s where you should be,” Ilitch said on Thursday morning. “Our fans, I was really worried about it.”

Then he saw the plans from the league and came around. It was too big for his ballpark. The 2013 Winter Classic will be the most ambitious one yet.

“Easily,” NHL COO John Collins said.

The game is expected to break a world record for the largest crowd to attend an outdoor hockey game. Depending on how strict the fire marshal is on Jan. 1, 2013, as many as 120,000 people will cram into Michigan Stadium. But Detroit isn’t left behind.

Comerica Park will host the alumni game, one that has skyrocketed in popularity. It will host the Great Lakes Invitational, featuring the best college hockey programs in the region. It’ll host an AHL game. It’ll host an OHL doubleheader.

“You know there’s going to be more events that come up,” Collins said. “We know this is going to be big. We want as much time as possible to make it as good as we can be.”

The league estimates that the game in Philadelphia brought in an economic impact of $30 to $35 million. These Winter Classic events are projected to double that. Collins suggested the number could be as high as $75 million for southeast Michigan. A region that can use the boost.

It’s another signal of the sheer enormity this game has become for the NHL, its franchises and the cities involved. It’s why Bettman said every single NHL team has expressed interest in hosting. Even those in California and Florida.

“Each one has been more ambitious,” Bettman told ESPN The Magazine. “If you go back and you track what we’ve done, each event and surrounding events have gotten bigger, bigger and bigger. This will be the biggest to date on every scale.”

That’s why there wasn’t any complaining from the Detroit contingent on Thursday. The league was deliberate in making this a Detroit event as much as it is an Ann Arbor one. When it’s all done, an estimated 150,000 people will be taking in hockey events in Detroit outside of the Winter Classic. For the first time, the league has already reserved a block of thousands of hotels downtown.

This event will be headquartered in the city. It’ll just be played elsewhere.

“There’s no disappointment at all,” Detroit city councilman Gary Brown told ESPN The Magazine. “How could we be mad about it? We won. We won. Obviously, we would like to have the Big Kahuna in Detroit, but this is a great consolation prize. ... We have to get out of the mindset in the city of Detroit and outside the city of Detroit -- it’s a region. What’s good for the region is good for the city of Detroit.”

Plus, Brown points out one other small fact.

“There’s no casinos in Ann Arbor,” he said. “Can you imagine? The casinos are going to be jam-packed.”

It’s an opportunity to unite a region. It’s also the first Winter Classic that has the potential to win over Canadian hockey fans, who have long felt it’s an American event. A stance justified by the locations and teams involved.

This one is different. Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke drew laughs with his declaration: “It’s Hockeytown versus the Center of the Hockey Universe.”

This might be the first Winter Classic that gets Toronto’s attention. To some die-hard Canadian hockey fans, it’s an event created for American television. It’s gimmicky.

Now, it’s a chance for it to be theirs. They’ll see up close that this event means something more to the players than a television event. It’s moments like we saw in Philadelphia, when Braydon Coburn skated around the ice during the family skate, holding tightly to his infant daughter in his arms. Or Claude Giroux’s sister getting a marriage proposal on the Winter Classic ice.

It’s Niklas Kronwall leaving the Wrigley Field locker room after the 2009 game against the Blackhawks and declaring: Let’s do this again next year.

These are memories players keep forever. Burke called them the postcards of their playing career.

The 2013 Winter Classic promises to transcend a city. And a region. Now, it includes another country.

It continues to grow, which is why it couldn’t be held in just one stadium.

“Undertaking two venues is massive,” Bettman said. “But it’s worth it, in this case.”