Will Winter Classic set attendance record? Big House is the place to do it

Michigan Stadium already holds the hockey attendance record, but the 2010 Big Chill was 6,000 fans short of a sellout. The NHL is hoping for a packed house for today’s game between the Red Wings and Maple Leafs.

By Garrett Perry

It’s been dubbed the Big House: Michigan Stadium. A place where Heisman Trophy winners have been crowned, football history written and attendance records shattered.

Home of the Michigan Wolverines for almost a century, it’s the largest stadium in the United States, and third largest in the world. It has an official capacity of 109,901, but it’s held crowds in excess of 110,000 on numerous occasions.

And while the classic venue is widely recognized for its boisterous crowds during Wolverine football games, it has a history with hockey as well.

On Dec. 11, 2010, the Michigan Wolverines played the Michigan State Spartans in the Cold War II, an outdoor hockey game that drew 104,073 spectators and obliterated previous hockey attendance records by almost 25,000. The record still stands today. The event was officially advertised as the Big Chill at the Big House, and would see the Wolverines defeat their archrival by a score of 5-0.

The record-breaking game was a rematch of the original Cold War game played outdoors at Spartan Stadium in 2001. The first Cold War game, which finished 3-3, set the bar in attendance for an ice hockey game at the time with 74,544.

Chicago Blackhawks defensemen Duncan Keith remembers playing in the original Cold War game as a Spartan: “I was a little nervous to play my first college game. It was such a big game, so many people, so many fans. It just kind of magnified everything.”

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And while he admits he was more nervous to face the archrival Wolverines, it didn’t stop him from scoring his first career college goal.

“It was a cool experience overall and I was just excited to be a part of it,” he said.

Although the Edmonton Oilers were pushing for an NHL outdoor game as early as the 1980s, it was the success of the Cold War game that eventually opened the NHL’s eyes to the idea.

“It’s not the first time that the game’s been proposed,” former Oilers bench boss Glen Sather told the Edmonton Sun back in 2003. “We tried to get that through (former NHL president John) Ziegler in the early 1980s. We wanted to play against the Russian team. He turned us down. He said it was a ridiculous idea.”

How times change, as both the Heritage and Winter Classic outdoor games have become marquee events for the NHL, not to mention huge revenue producers.

With today’s Winter Classic featuring the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs, the NHL has its sights on a new attendance record. Upwards of 110,000 people are expected to pack Michigan Stadium. Whether they break the record or not, one thing is certain: there will be more outdoor hockey games on the horizon for NHL fans.

Here’s a historical tale of the tape between today’s two combatants: