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Pual Ranger says the Winter Classic reminds him of playing pond hockey as a child. (Tom Szczerbowski/USA Today Sports)
Pual Ranger says the Winter Classic reminds him of playing pond hockey as a child. (Tom Szczerbowski/USA Today Sports)

NHL Winter Classic

Mirtle: Leafs gear up for Big House showdown against Wings Add to ...

Finally, after two years of speculation, planning and hype, it’s here.

The National Hockey League’s 2014 Winter Classic between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Detroit Red Wings – the first to involve a Canadian team, and the first outdoor game for the Leafs – will be a record-setter on New Year’s Day, given that attendance will top 105,000 in a football stadium appropriately named the Big House, in Ann Arbor, Mich.

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While what’s become the NHL’s top annual marketing vehicle was shelved for a year last season due to the lockout, it’s back with all sorts of new wrinkles designed to up the ante from when we last saw the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers meet outdoors in 2012.

This time, there will be two alumni games and others involving minor-league and junior teams playing at two different venues – one a ballpark, the other football stadium. And there are five more outdoor games sprinkled throughout the NHL season’s schedule.

Whether that results in outdoor-game fatigue remains to be seen, but there have already been reports of tepid interest and less-than-stellar sales for both the Vancouver and Los Angeles events. Even so, this strategy is one key reason the league is forecasting more than 12-per-cent growth ($400-million) of hockey-related revenues over their last full season, and a $7-million boost to each team’s salary cap for next season.

On a basic level, more ticket sales and more spectacles mean more money.

Legions of crazed Leafs fans are expected to cross the Detroit River for Wednesday’s game, creating what some have predicted will be three- or four-hour wait times at the border, followed by brisk sales of beer and gear over the next two days.

(One NHL press release sent out on Monday afternoon projected vendors would sell 14,150 pretzels and 38,450 hot dogs at the game.)

The commercialism and revenue-promoting focus is enough to inspire cynicism, but what’s also been obvious in the lead-up to the game is how genuinely excited the players are to participate.

Leafs veteran Joffrey Lupul called it a once-in-a-career kind of event, on par with another of the NHL’s showcases that he experienced during a breakthrough season two years ago.

“It’s a special thing for the NHL. I take it as it’s like playing in an all-star game or something like that,” Lupul explained. “You want to go and put your best foot forward. It’s a regular season game, so you want to try and win it, but you also want to enjoy it.

“It’s one of those things you want to get as much out of as you can, because more than likely you won’t get a chance to play in it again.”

Lupul added that a lot of the Leafs weren’t able to see their families over the short Christmas break last week, so they’ll use the Winter Classic to do some catching up. A noteworthy portion of the massive crowd will actually be players’ family and friends, as the Leafs were each given four complimentary tickets and the chance to buy 10 more for $189 apiece.

While it sounds rather clichéd after so many of these Winter and Heritage Classics, several players this week pointed out that playing outside and with their parents watching will make this the rare NHL game that takes them back to their childhood.

“That’s what’s special about it,” Leafs defenceman Paul Ranger said. “Most of us are Canadians in here and played on the ponds and backyard rinks. That’s where I spent most of my childhood – and it’s just a bigger backyard rink.”

“The people that you surround yourself with, your family and your friends, they will be enjoying the event more than the people that are actually playing in it,” added Leafs coach Randy Carlyle, who appears to have taken on the role of head curmudgeon for the festivities.

As for more practical concerns, the ice conditions this time around shouldn’t be a problem. Wednesday’s forecast in Ann Arbor is for snow and a chilly -8 C, which suits the players just fine.

“I’d rather be skating on ice than water,” Ranger said.

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