Winter Classic heads to the Big House

The Detroit Red Wings will host the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 2013 Winter Classic that is expected to attract a record crowd, the NHL said on Thursday.

The outdoor game between two of the NHL's Original Six teams will be played New Year's Day at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, known among college football fans as the 'Big House' with a seating capacity of over 100,000.

The current record attendance for an outdoor hockey game was set in 2010 when 104,173 people watched University of Michigan and rival Michigan State University at Michigan Stadium.

The biggest crowd to attend an NHL game was set in 2008 when 71,217 people watched the Buffalo Sabres and Pittsburgh Penguins in the inaugural Winter Classic at Ralph Wilson Stadium.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said that he expects that record to crumble with 115,000 tickets available for the Winter Classic while projecting that between 150,000 to 200,000 will take in the festivities, pouring millions of dollars into the struggling Detroit economy.

"These two Original Six rivals will take this event to a new record setting level on Tuesday, January 1 2013," said Bettman. "Since this outdoor matchup is so big there is only one place it could be played so the 2013 NHL Winter Classic will be played at the 'Big House' on the campus of the University of Michigan, the largest stadium in North America.

"Even with 115,000 tickets available we still won't have enough to satisfy the demand."

What began as a one-off tribute to hockey's outdoor roots has quickly blossomed into the NHL's most high-profile regular season fixture with Buffalo, Chicago, Boston, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia having hosted the annual event.

Previous Winter Classics have featured hockey's biggest names and rivalries at iconic outdoor venues like Chicago's Wrigley Field and Boston's Fenway Park, home to Major League Baseball's Cubs and Red Sox, respectively.

For the first time the Winter Classic will feature a Canadian team, the NHL hoping that thousands of Maple Leafs fans will make the short hop across the border and help fill the massive stadium.

"It's Hockeytown versus the Center of the hockey universe," declared Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke.

The Classic will provide the main course of a ambitious hockey holiday feast with Comerica Park, home of Major League Baseball's Detroit Tigers, set to host a matchup between the Maple Leafs and Red Wings minor League affiliates - the Grand Rapids Griffins and the Toronto Marlies.

The downtown Detroit venue will also stage two Ontario Hockey League games, featuring two junior teams from Canada, Windsor Spitfires and London Knights and two from the U.S. the Plymouth Whalers and Saginaw Spirit.

Plans also call for an alumni game and the Great Lakes Invitational, a U.S. college tournament, to be played at Comerica along with youth hockey games and number of public skating and corporate events.

"This community deserves a great event like this," said Red Wings and Tigers owner Mike Ilitch. "This is one of the greatest sports towns ever and this celebration of hockey will provide a tremendous positive impact to our community.

"We're proud to show the world why we are Hockeytown, I promise you there will be something for everyone."

(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto, editing by Justin Palmer)