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Toronto Maple Leafs' Phil Kessel scores on Detroit Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard on a penalty shot in the first period of their NHL hockey game in Toronto January 7, 2012. (FRED THORNHILL/Reuters)
Toronto Maple Leafs' Phil Kessel scores on Detroit Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard on a penalty shot in the first period of their NHL hockey game in Toronto January 7, 2012. (FRED THORNHILL/Reuters)

Maple Leafs, Red Wings look set for Winter Classic Add to ...

This slipped under the radar thanks to the sound and fury about the poll that said Toronto Maple Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf is overrated and the Mike Cammalleri trade, but it looks like the Leafs will play the Detroit Red Wings in next year’s NHL Winter Classic.

However, the game will not be held in Toronto but in Ann Arbor, Mich., where it is expected a world record for attendance at a hockey game will be set at Michigan Stadium. The stadium already holds the record, as 104,173 fans attended an outdoor game in 2010 between the University of Michigan and Michigan State. The plan is to configure the stadium capacity to 115,000 for the NHL’s outdoor game.

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Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke, who is also chasing a Winter Classic for Toronto along with the NHL all-star game and the entry draft, said in an e-mail message the Leafs have not received any invitation to the Winter Classic – yet. But the word around the NHL is the league is committed to seeing the Leafs and Wings meet in next year’s outdoor game.

News that plans for this game are well-advanced was first broken by Yahoo! Sports. The website reported talks heated up in the last couple of weeks after Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon decided it would be a good idea to land one of the NHL’s signature events.

While the NHL usually sticks with U.S.-based teams in the Northeast for the Winter Classic, the Leafs are attractive because their large fan-base across Southern Ontario guarantees the game will be a sellout, even in huge venue like Michigan Stadium. A happy by-product is the colourful personalities in the Leafs’ front office mean the HBO documentary series 24/7 that tracks the two teams in the outdoor game will have lots of drama.

Burke has said 24/7 is too intrusive for his taste. But a few days ago, the GM remarked on Twitter that “if the NHL asks, we do it.”

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