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New Year's Day has become a kind of hockey holiday for fans. Tomorrow afternoon, the NHL Winter Classic will pit the Detroit Red Wings against the Toronto Maple Leafs. They'll play outdoors at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor in front of more than 100,000 people. That's right, at least 100,000 people watching hockey outside on a frigid cold day. Michigan Radio's Sarah Cwiek reports.
SARAH CWIEK, BYLINE: The Detroit Red Wings are kind of playing a home game on tomorrow, even if it'll be played about 40 miles west of their home ice in downtown Detroit. Mike Babcock is the Red Wings head coach. He told the NHL Network that might not be such a good thing, because home teams haven't fared so well in prior Winter Classics.
MIKE BABCOCK: The reason the home team doesn't have much success is there's probably a New Year's Eve party going on in everybody's house. So, you got to decide whether that's more important or whether the game's more important.
CWIEK: There's a lot of nostalgia surrounding outdoor hockey. And it's a vein the NHL successfully taps with the Winter Classic. But this is no small-time pond hockey. This is outdoor mega-hockey at the University of Michigan's football stadium, capacity well over 100,000. Last year's Winter Classic was canceled because of a player lockout.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Be careful, be careful.
CWIEK: But this year is different, and it doesn't hurt that the game features the Red Wings and the Toronto Maple Leafs - two of the NHL's original six teams, from two of North America's most hockey-mad cities.
ANDREW MORRIS: Probably, it's going to be cold. We're expecting a lot of blue. I mean, there was a - like, basically, on the way down here, it was just a caravan of blue and white.
CWIEK: That's Maple Leafs fan Andrew Morris in Detroit this week. Before shifting to Ann Arbor for the big game New Year's Day, the place to be is here at the Hockeytown Winter Festival. Morris was just one of thousands decked out in Maple Leafs gear. The crowd was split pretty evenly between red and blue. That went down to the family level. Greg Blanchard sported a Maple Leafs jersey while his son, Derek, wore a throwback Detroit sweater. Though they're from Winnipeg, Manitoba, Greg is a lifelong Maple Leafs fan and Derek says he adopted the Red Wings as his team when he was five and the Winnipeg Jets left town in the 1990s.
DEREK BLANCHARD: And I've stuck with them ever since. And the Winter Classic, we had my team versus my dad's here, so couldn't miss it. Had to be here.
CWIEK: Neither Blanchard was fazed by the prospect of the game time weather forecast: about 18 degrees, with an 80 percent chance of snow.
GREG BLANCHARD: We're ready for this. No problem that way.
BLANCHARD: No problem. It's basically a summer vacation for us.
CWIEK: Tom Crites was just outside the festival, looking happily exhausted, a pair of hockey skates slung over one shoulder. A former hockey player and Detroiter, Crites now lives near Seattle. He says that whenever the Red Wings play the Vancouver Canucks, he tries to be there, usually with lots of other Red Wings fans.
TOM CRITES: The Canuck fans are not too happy about that. The Canucks are not happy about that. But the Red Wings players, they see them, and they give us high-fives and everything. So, the players really appreciate it.
CWIEK: It's no secret that with so many former Detroiters now living elsewhere, the Red Wings draw loyal crowds no matter where they play. But since so many Maple Leafs fans have made the trek down from Toronto, there's no guarantee this will feel like a Red Wings home game. The NHL estimates this game could draw up to 115,000 people - the biggest crowd ever at a hockey game. For NPR News, I'm Sarah Cwiek in Detroit.
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