"It's Hockeytown versus the centre of the hockey universe," Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke said Thursday.
The two Original Six foes will play outdoors at Michigan Stadium on Jan. 1, part of an outdoor showcase that will also include minor league and college hockey games at Detroit's Comerica Park.
Toronto will become the first Canadian team to play in the Winter Classic when the Maple Leafs and Red Wings face off in Ann Arbor, about 75 kilometres west of Detroit.
They'll arrive with a large contingent of fans who only needed about an hour to crash the ticket pre-sale website after Thursday's announcement. The team's official Twitter feed cited "overwhelming demand" for the problem.
Michigan Stadium — affectionately known as the Big House — drew a Guinness World Record crowd of 104,173 for a 2010 NCAA hockey game. The NHL is expecting to eclipse that mark with ease.
"Even with 115,000 or more tickets available, we still won't have enough to satisfy the demand," said commissioner Gary Bettman.
The Detroit-Toronto rivalry dates to 1927. Although the teams are currently in different conferences, they've played 117 playoff games against each other, second only to the 170 meetings between Boston and Montreal.
Buffalo, Chicago, Boston, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia have all hosted the Winter Classic. With the Detroit area hosting next year, Bettman felt the time was right to include a team from Canada.
"We thought that we had built this event to a level where it made sense to do it, and that even from a U.S. network television standpoint, we were comfortable that it would work well," Bettman said.
The event will also likely see the teams given extra exposure on HBO. Even though nothing has been finalized with the U.S. cable network, a league source confirmed the NHL intends to open its doors to the all-access "24/7" series for a third straight year.
There have been two outdoor Heritage Classics on Canadian soil: Montreal vs. Edmonton at Commonwealth Stadium in 2003, and Montreal vs. Calgary at McMahon Stadium last year. The game in Edmonton was the league's first outdoor regular-season game.
Although Detroit hasn't hosted the Winter Classic, the Red Wings played in it in 2009, beating the Chicago Blackhawks 6-4 at Wrigley Field, home of baseball's Chicago Cubs.
While the centrepiece game next January will take place in a college town, the league is making sure to include Detroit, scheduling what it calls the Hockeytown Winter Festival at Comerica. The rink at the downtown ballpark will host an American Hockey League matchup between the Toronto Marlies and Grand Rapids Griffins along with games involving the OHL's Windsor Spitfires, Saginaw Spirit, Plymouth Whalers and London Knights.
The Comerica rink will also be open for public skating.
Michigan Stadium has undergone changes recently, such as the addition of permanent lights. Michigan hosted its first prime-time football game last season, beating Notre Dame in dramatic fashion.
"This is just an incredible facility," said Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon. "We spent $226 million expanding and renovating it, and we use it eight days a year. To the extent we can come up occasionally with an opportunity — and that's why we're doing weddings and we're doing corporate parties. We're doing a lot of things to try to say, 'You know what, let's use this, let people enjoy it, take advantage of it.'"
The possibility of the NHL breaking attendance records brought out Brandon's competitive side. Michigan's night football game at the Big House drew an NCAA-record crowd of 114,804.
"If they can figure out a way to do better than that, then they will set the record not only for the largest crowd to ever watch a hockey game, but the largest crowd to ever watch anything in this stadium," Brandon said. "And then my job will be to figure out a way to beat it."
Veteran Detroit defenceman Nicklas Lidstrom was at the Big House to promote the Winter Classic. That raised an obvious question: Does it mean he's definitely planning on coming back for a 21st season in 2012-13?
"We'll have to wait and see," said Lidstrom, who turns 42 in April. "It's only one game, but it's an intriguing one."
With files from The Canadian Press.
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