ANN ARBOR — When Luke Glendening played hockey at the University of Michigan, he lost count of the number of football games he attended at Michigan Stadium.
Did he ever think he was going to play an outdoor hockey game inside one of college football’s most vaunted buildings, let alone twice in less than four years?
“I love sports, and I’ve watched a lot of games here, and I’ve seen a lot of games here on TV,” said Glendening, a rookie center for the Detroit Red Wings who played for the Toledo Walleye last season. “But having the opportunity to play here for a second time? It’s awesome.”
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Today at Michigan Stadium, Glendening and the Red Wings face the Toronto Maple Leafs in the Winter Classic, the NHL’s annual New Year’s Day outdoor hockey game.
The Winter Classic is one of six outdoor games that the NHL will host this season, and the stadium colloquially known as “The Big House” — a term coined by legendary football broadcaster Keith Jackson — will become the first college facility to host an NHL regular-season game.
Even as the trend has proliferated, with 18 outdoor college hockey games and two American Hockey League outdoor games this season, the concept continues to stay fresh.
“The hype, the media coverage, the elements, being outdoors, taking us out of what we’re used to inside an arena and taking our game outside and braving the elements, it’s just being a part of something that’s kind of a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” Detroit left wing Justin Abdelkader said. “It’s something you enjoy, and it brings us back to our childhood days.”
Where Michigan football legends once roamed, future Hockey Hall of Famers Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg will skate on an ice rink inside a building that’s traditionally reserved for football rivalries such as Ohio State-Michigan or Michigan State-Michigan.
“If you haven't been to a football Saturday here, then you should put it on your bucket list,” Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said. “It’s the best sporting event. Can it transfer into hockey? I assume it can.”
Today is the second time Michigan Stadium has hosted an outdoor hockey game. During Glendening’s junior year at Michigan, the Big House hosted “The Big Chill,” an outdoor hockey game between Michigan and Michigan State on Dec. 10, 2010. Earlier that year, Glendening and the Wolverines faced Wisconsin at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wis., the home of the Wisconsin football team.
“The Big Chill” set a Guinness World Record as the largest confirmed audience (104,173) for a hockey game. The NHL expects to shatter that mark today inside one of college football’s storied stadiums.
NHL chief operating officer John Collins said 105,500 tickets have been sold — one of three sold-out NHL outdoor games.
“There’s a lot going on, there’s a lot of excitement around and a lot of hype,” Glendening said of playing in an outdoor game. “You have to try to control that and get ready because at the end of the day, it’s still a hockey game.
But, he said, “It brings it back to the roots of hockey, when you’re a kid and you’re playing outside with your friends, and all day you’re outside, then your mom’s calling you into dinner, and then you eat dinner and you go right back out.”
Earlier this week, Michigan basketball coach John Beilein likened the area surrounding Michigan’s Crisler Arena to another frigid place — the North Pole. And Red Wings goalie Petr Mrazek originally planned to wear red goalie pads adorned with white snowflakes and a snowman, designed for the Winter Classic.
“I wanted to wear them, but I didn’t have time to break them in,” said Mrazek, a former Walleye goalie. “So I’ll save them for a next time, maybe for Christmas or something.”
Even after he agreed to a seven-year contract extension that was announced Tuesday morning, Toronto captain Dion Phaneuf paused to revel in the idea of skating inside the Big House.
“When I drove up to the building, I got chills,” Phaneuf said. “To be able to come here, and with this news being announced, to have my family here, it’s going to be a special game to be a part of. I’m really looking forward to stepping out there, especially [today] when there are 110,000 people.
“It’s going to be an experience I’ll never forget.”