Thursday's announcement that the NHL 2013 Winter Classic was invading the Big House was not a surprise. We've seen this coming for a while, likely going back way beyond the last Winter Classic. It was just a matter of time.
The inclusion of a Canadian team in the event -- while probably a shock to the system for some fans -- was about as inevitable as lake-effect snow in upper Michigan. This was bound to happen, eventually, and was likely to be Toronto or Montreal first, because of their immense popularity and the recognizable symbols associated with the franchises.
This matchup was a given, especially with the location involved. For all the jokes people like to tell about empty seats at Joe Louis Arena, the Red Wings are immensely popular, both in Michigan and around the States.
For the National Hockey League, the decision to use Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor to stage the 2013 NHL Winter Classic was a complete no-brainer.
Just when you thought the mainstream attention the event gets might be dying off a bit, here comes a potential record crowd of 115,000 or so to spice things up. The big crowd should attract plenty of sponsor attention, meaning dollars for the NHL, and perhaps exposure with new companies drawn by an event of this magnitude. It's a well the NHL won't be able to go to again, because there simply aren't a lot of venues in hockey-mad areas capable of holding 115,000 people.
Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke called the matchup "Hockeytown versus the center of the hockey universe." Burke is known for being rather bombastic, but he probably nailed this one. There is no American franchise as consistently strong on the ice or visible off it than the Red Wings. The Maple Leafs, meanwhile, are visible all over North America, and Toronto isn't exactly a gazillion miles from Ann Arbor.
This event will be decidedly red and blue, as you can be certain a large throng of Toronto fans will be on hand for the game. The atmosphere will be electric for both teams, and it's a tremendous win for the NHL on both sides of the border.
The league's American television partner, NBC, is presented with a best-case scenario when it comes to including a Canadian team. Only a future Classic involving the Canadiens and hopefully the Bruins would potentially do better when it comes to grabbing American eyeballs. People watching in Canada are meaningless to the Mighty Peacock, as those televisions don't help the overall ratings. They need Americans to tune in.
And they will. The NHL has created a New Year's Day spectacle, and the league has done a good job making the event must-see for fans of all teams, instead of just fans of the participants. Fans are starting to respond, but the true test will come when the league decides to let a team like the Blues or Wild host the Classic.
In the meantime, look for the NHL to keep doing what it can to make the event fresh, while also including the teams that are known to have large, vibrant fanbases that are going to watch the event in large enough numbers to make NBC happy. There's no doubt the Big House Classic accomplishes the former. Only time will tell if viewers will follow.