- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 1, 2014

ANN ARBOR, MICH. — The opponent is still unknown. The venue has yet to be announced. But a year from now, the hockey world will descend on Washington when the NHL’s annual Winter Classic makes its way to the District.

The Capitals have participated in the event before. Thousands of fans made the drive to Pittsburgh on Jan. 1, 2011 to watch their team beat the Penguins 3-1.

But it’s a different animal when a team is the host.

The Detroit Red Wings found that out this week when they faced the Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday in the sixth edition of the game and the first featuring a Canadian team. Toronto won 3-2 in a shootout.

Thousands of fans made the drive across the border wearing blue and white Maple Leafs jerseys. They poured into University of Michigan Stadium – the Big House – as a steady snow greeted their entrance into one of college football’s hallowed grounds.

“It’s like a once in a lifetime experience,” said Maple Leafs fan Akiva Glasenberg, who drove almost six hours from Toronto with two friends, Avi Marder and Aryeh Rosen, on a snowy trek that normally would have taken less than five.

They weren’t alone. Maple Leafs fans appeared to outnumber even the rabid Detroit supporters who long ago dubbed their city Hockeytown. When Toronto forward James van Riemsdyk tied the game at 1-1 late in the second period, a sea of blue leapt from the seats in celebration.

“It’s New Year's Day. What else are we gonna do?” Marder cracked. “We decided this yesterday. Bought the tickets online. It’s all very spontaneous.”

The Caps  aren’t sure about their own venue yet. Nationals Park makes the most sense and several league sources confirmed reports earlier in the week that the NHL hopes to go that route.

The baseball stadium has a Metro line directly across the street and allows the league to keep its ancillary events, like the popular alumni game, centrally located in a way that playing at FedEx Field in suburban Maryland never could.

The NHL has held the Winter Classic at baseball stadiums before, using Wrigley Field in 2009 and Fenway Park in 2010. That’s not always an ideal scenario, however.

“What we find when we go into baseball stadiums is the tickets that have been the best tickets for the viewing of a hockey game aren’t necessarily the best tickets for viewing a baseball game,” said John Collins, the NHL’s chief operating officer and the man who helped spearhead the formation of the first Winter Classic in 2008 between Pittsburgh and Buffalo.

Those two baseball stadiums also have a historical cache that Nationals Park, which opened in 2008, just can’t match. That goes for Michigan Stadium, too. So a Winter Classic in Washington can’t rely as heavily on the venue to provide the nostalgic atmosphere the event thrives upon.

“If you haven’t been to a football Saturday here, then you should put it on your bucket list,” Detroit coach Mike Babcock said of Michigan Stadium. “It’s the best sporting event. I’ve been to the Olympic Games, the World Series, the Stanley Cup. I’ve been to a few things to say the least. This is probably the best sporting event I’ve ever been to, bar none. Can it transfer into hockey? I assume it can.”

Collins said that league officials have visited Washington, but was adamant that no opponent has yet been picked and no deal struck for a venue. The opponent is typically chosen when the NHL begins work on its schedule for the following season. But the Boston Bruins and the Philadelphia Flyers, two Eastern Conference teams with massive fan bases that could travel easily to Washington, are two obvious candidates.

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