NHL

Wings-Leafs Winter Classic at The Big House set to break record — maybe

A general view of the Toronto Maple Leafs during practice the day before the Winter Classic hockey game against the Detroit Red Wings
Michigan Stadium, known as The Big House, will be full of hockey fans on Wednesday.
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Jon Paul Morosi

Jon Paul Morosi is a National MLB Writer for FOXSports.com. He previously covered baseball for the Detroit Free Press and Seattle Post-Intelligencer. He began his journalism career at the Bay City Times in his native Michigan. Follow him on Twitter.

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ANN ARBOR, Mich.

Will Wednesday’s NHL Winter Classic between the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs set a world hockey attendance record?

Maybe.

The NHL has sold 105,500 tickets for the event, the league confirmed Tuesday. Believe it or not, that doesn’t constitute a sellout in the truest sense of the word. Michigan Stadium could fit an additional several thousand fans – the football capacity is 109,901 – and tickets for the event remained available on NHL.com as of Tuesday afternoon.

Still, the NHL will break the existing world record of 104,173 – also set at The Big House, for a Michigan-Michigan State game more than three years ago – if everyone who purchased a ticket shows up. But there is some doubt as to whether that will happen, given the frigid forecast. The Weather Channel has forecasted a high of 17 degrees Fahrenheit, with a low of 13.

Teams skated in similar conditions during practices Tuesday, when temperatures were in the teens for most of the afternoon.

“I’ve been in worse than this,” said a grinning Joffrey Lupul, the Maple Leafs winger and Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta, native. “Not for a while, but I’ve certainly played outside in colder weather than this, so I’m hoping that experience will help me tomorrow.”

Guinness World Records will have a presence in Ann Arbor to certify the NHL-issued figure. It wasn’t until several weeks after the 2010 Michigan-Michigan State game that Guinness verified a turnstile count of 104,173 – nearly 10,000 fewer than the university initially publicized.

The good news: It doesn’t look like fans (or players) will have to contend with blizzard conditions. NHL ice guru Dan Craig said Tuesday afternoon that the league’s most recent forecast calls for 1 to 2 inches of snow during the day. That should be manageable for the league and its crew, which can clear snow from the ice during television timeouts and other stoppages if necessary.

Ice conditions improved noticeably as Tuesday afternoon wore on. Mother Nature had something to do with that; it snowed as the Red Wings practiced at 1 p.m. ET, but the flakes stopped falling by the time the Maple Leafs took the ice two hours later. Craig apparently made an adjustment to the ice surface, too, although he played coy when asked what he had done.

“The ice was great,” Leafs forward Phil Kessel said. “I thought the puck moved well out there. It’s going to be cold, right? It’s chilly. It’s not warm. When you’re skating into the wind, you can definitely feel the pushback. It’s surprising.”

Interestingly, Red Wings forwards Justin Abdelkader and Dan Cleary said the most significant elemental factor was the wind – not the snow or cold. If the wind is severe enough to create an advantage for one team over the other, they will switch ends of the ice at the 10-minute mark of the third period.

“It’s cold, but that’s what we’re used to, right?” Abdelkader asked. “That’s why we play hockey. We grow up playing on the rinks outside. It’s part of our DNA as hockey players. We don’t get cold on ice.

“We’re more worried about if it’s going to snow, or if it’s going to be windy. But both teams have to play through it.

"Whatever the elements bring, they bring. I’m just glad it’s not 60 degrees and sunny.”

In the end, spectators might have more issues with traffic and parking than the weather. Fans would be wise to utilize the satellite parking lots and shuttle buses the NHL has arranged. Students who walk from on- and off-campus housing account for roughly 20 percent of a typical Michigan football crowd; that won’t be the case Wednesday, with the university still on its holiday recess and a significant portion of the crowd driving in from Ontario.

“Come early,” Red Wings general manager Ken Holland advised. “I drove in today for the first time. To see all those tents out there, all the opportunities for fans to do something before the game looks pretty neat.”

Tagged: Red Wings, Maple Leafs

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