Big House Is Perfect Setting for Winter Classic, But Casting of Red Wings, Maple Leafs Lacks Some Entertainment Value


Big House Is Perfect Setting for Winter Classic, But Casting of Red Wings, Maple Leafs Lacks Some Entertainment ValueIn real estate, it's all about location, location, location.

In that regard, the NHL couldn't have picked a better spot for their annual showcase when they formally announced on Thursday that next year's Winter Classic will be held at the Big House at the University of Michigan.

Bigger isn't always better, but the spectacle of putting on the league's premier regular-season event before 100,000-plus fans in one of college football's most revered venues is hard to resist. It's actually fitting that after stealing much of the spotlight from the bowls on what used to be college football's grandest day in the pre-BSC era, the NHL is now moving its show onto the stage of one of college football's most hallowed stadiums.

Michigan Stadium has already housed one hockey game, when the Wolverines hosted Michigan State before the largest crowd ever to watch a hockey game, as 113,411 fans flocked to Ann Arbor for The Big Chill at the Big House on Dec. 11, 2010.

So there's no doubt the venue will work. The only question is how enticing this matchup between the host Red Wings and Toronto will be.

Sure, Detroit has plenty of star power with Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Nicklas Lidstrom if the seven-time Norris winner foregoes retirement for another season. On the ice, their skill is something to marvel at, though fans of physical hockey may not be nearly as enchanted.

The Maple Leafs have also largely abandoned the famed "truculence" general manager Brian Burke promised to bring to Toronto when he took over as general manager in 2008.

But the game is just the final chapter of this story. What has really made the Winter Classic such a special showcase is the buildup to it, and in particular the unprecedented behind the scenes look at the game and its players provided by HBO's 24/7 series.

That's where the Red Wings and Leafs come up wanting. The outsized personalities and intriguing characters of past editions just aren't there on these clubs. The Red Wings ooze class and professionalism, but are they really guys you're going to enjoy following around for a month? Lidstrom's NHL 36 episode on the NBC Sports Channel is already being patented as a new cure for insomnia. Of course, tracking Lidstrom's every move is still preferable to the unrelenting charisma of Phil Kessel on camera.

Then again, his awkwardness could be compelling in a train wreck kind of way. And there's always the possibility of an unexpected breakout star emerging. After all, who knew Philly goalie Ilya Brygalov would be such a "humangous" star, albeit one who's not as effective at stopping pucks as he is explaining the punishments for killing tigers in China.

No, the entertainment for this one will have to come from the people off the ice. Coaches Mike Babcock and Ron Wilson, assuming he can keep the Leafs in the playoff hunt and keep his job, will have a tough time living up to the standards set by Bruce Boudreau and John Tortorella in past editions of 24/7, but at least one veteran coach thinks Wilson can do it.

"I know Ron -? he'll have fun with it," Flyers coach Peter Laviolette told the Globe and Mail. "He's got a good personality [for the show]."

His boss could be even better. Burke has already gotten the hype started, promoting the game in a manner that would make even Don King blush.

"It's Hockeytown versus the center of the hockey universe," Burke said during an appearance with Detroit counterpart Ken Holland on NHL Live on Thursday.

Holland responded to Burke's proclamation by joking, "That's humbly put." But Burke was just getting started.

"We're really excited about this, obviously," Burke continued, undeterred by Holland's interruption. "Two passionate fan bases, but I can guarantee you'll see a lot of blue in the Big House on Jan. 1."

The blue in question would be Toronto fans venturing over the boarder to Michigan for the game. That is one worthy defense for making this matchup, as the Canadian teams are long overdue to have a representative in the league's marquee event.

So it is nice to see that NBC will have to finally recognize that there actually is a nation to the north of the United States, and it just happens to be the birthplace of this great game. It's just unfortunate that's NBC's epiphany could come at the expense of HBO's entertainment.

Have a question for Douglas Flynn? Send it to him via Twitter at @douglasflynn or send it here. He will pick a few questions to answer every week for his mailbag.

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