Well before the NHL started staging the Winter Classic as a way of showcasing the sport as if it was taking place on a pond, Michigan and Michigan State played the “Cold War.” Packing a then-record crowd of 74,544 into Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, the two schools set the standard for outdoor hockey.
Now, the NHL takes the sixth incarnation of the Winter Classic back to school and back to Michigan for a matchup between the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs.
“For Detroit’s home game, there isn’t a better venue in the state — in the whole region,” Knuble said. “You have the university, which carries so much clout in the state. It’s just natural to have it there.”
Knuble, who’s from Caledonia, Mich., and makes his summer home in Grand Rapids, pointed to only a few college venues he thought even compared to the Big House — Notre Dame Stadium, Penn State’s Beaver Stadium and Tennessee’s Neyland Stadium.
But for Knuble, the “Big Chill at the Big House” in 2010, which broke the record again with a crowd of 113,411, set the stage for next year’s Classic. Technically the capacity of Michigan Stadium is 109,901.
“You’re talking about an even bigger spectator pool, especially when you bring in Toronto. That’s all of Ontario that wants to go to that game and all of Michigan,” Knuble said. “You could probably have another 50,000 seats on there and still book it.”
That’s likely what the league is counting on, and the 39-year-old Washington Capitals veteran admitted some of having the game in Ann Arbor is “money-motivated.” Per multiple reports, the NHL is paying the University of Michigan $3 million to lease the stadium, which will only host the Winter Classic game itself.
Detroit Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch also owns the Detroit Tigers, and Comerica Park will be the host for the annual alumni game and several others, including youth, high school and college matchups.
But the allure of the Big House, about 40 minutes outside Detroit, is the ability to do something that hasn’t been approached at a Winter Classic yet: draw easily more than 100,000 fans.
“They’re going to go for a record, and why wouldn’t you?” Knuble said.
Even if television ratings in the United States drop as as result of having a Canadian team in the Winter Classic for the first time, the novelty idea of packing a college stadium could be worth the risk. And just like the NHL has done with this event five times history shows Michigan can make outdoor hockey into an impressive spectacle.
“It’s been done there before,” Knuble said. “It’ll be bigger and better this time.”