The Toronto Maple Leafs may have a big game Thursday night in Philadelphia, but it wasn't hard to see how excited they are for one date on next season's schedule.
The official announcement that the Leafs will face the Detroit Red Wings in next year's Winter Classic made for a lot of smiling facing in the Toronto dressing room, as they could finally talk about the NHL's worst kept secret knowing they would be taking part in the marquee event.
The game will take place at the University of Michigan's The Big House, which seats roughly 110,000 - a number that would easily shatter the NHL's all-time attendance record.
“With the history of the two teams that are playing and the atmosphere, the setting, that’s going to be down there, it’s going to be unbelievable to be a part of," Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf said in a small press conference here in Philadelphia. "As a player, it’s an exciting day. It’s an honour to be a part of a game like this."
Toronto coach Ron Wilson noted the game will be extra special for his family given their connection to Detroit, where both his late father Larry and his uncle Johnny played for and briefly coached the Red Wings.
"It's just too bad they're not there," Wilson said. "It'll be nice for my whole family. All my relatives, who live in the Detroit area, as well as bringing my own family. For me, it'll be special with my grandchildren."
Leafs GM Brian Burke, meanwhile, was 700 kilometres away in Detroit for the official announcement and was his usual entertaining self (video available here).
“It’s Hockeytown versus the centre of the hockey universe,” Burke said. “We’re really excited about this obviously. Two passionate fan bases, but I can guarantee you that you’re going to see a lot of blue in The Big House on Jan. 1. Our fans will respond to this as the league wants them to and turn out in good numbers.
“Obviously, it’s a good rivalry. We haven’t kept up our end of it in the last couple of years, but we’re on our way back.”
As for the HBO 24/7 series that may go along with being in the Winter Classic, several Leafs players predicted Colby Armstrong will be the biggest hit, given his quick wit and sense of humour.
Wilson, however, acknowledged he may have to tone down his act for the cameras.
"I don’t care what anybody says, it does change what you’re going to do," he said. "In my case, with two granddaughters, I’m going to clean up my act for sure. I wouldn’t want to embarrass myself in front of my granddaughters. They call up if they’ve seen me yelling at an official so you’ve always got to watch that."
Yahoo! has more on the presser in Detroit, including Burke's guarantee that they'll be able to sell out half the building in 72 hours. It's hard to argue with him given the way the ticket presale site has been crashing so far.
- As I mentioned, there's also a game to be played Thursday so here are some tidbits on that front. James Reimer will start for the Leafs while Sergei Bobrovsky will be in goal for the Flyers. Ilya Bryzgalov, who I wrote about Wednesday, is out sick and will be replaced by a call-up from the minors on the bench.
- There aren't going to be any other lineup changes for Toronto, meaning Mike Komisarek continues to sit out.
- No surprise here, but Wilson is going to give Phaneuf and Gunnarsson the shutdown assignment against Claude Giroux, who sits second in NHL scoring behind only Evgeni Malkin.
- Luke Schenn and Mikhail Grabovski faced quite a few tough questions from the Philadelphia media at the morning skate. Schenn was asked at length about the trade rumours surrounding him while Grabovski was questioned about the high stick that badly injured Flyers captain Chris Pronger when the Leafs were last in town.
- And it's obviously worth noting how close these teams could be in the standings should Toronto win. After falling well behind the Flyers in December, the Leafs have battled back to the point that they can move within three points of Philadelphia (and home ice in Round 1) with a regulation victory.
- For any more updates leading up to or during the game, check my Twitter account.
Leafs projected lineup
Lupul - Bozak - Kessel MacArthur - Grabovski - Kulemin Lombardi - Connolly - Crabb Brown - Steckel - Armstrong
Gunnarsson - Phaneuf Liles - Franson Gardiner - Schenn