DETROIT -- Inside Comerica Park, Hall of Famers Scotty Bowman and Gordie Howe chatted with future HOF member Nicklas Lidstrom before a large gathering of the Detroit Red Wings veterans took to the outdoor rink for a practice ahead of the NHL Winter Classic Alumni Game (Tuesday on CBC & CBCSports.ca, 1 p.m. ET).
Outside Comerica Park, the hockey spirit was alive and well, too. Thousands of fans ambled about the Hockeytown Winter Festival. They came to take in the atmosphere, check out the exhibits. Maybe take a trip down an artificial toboggan run or a skate on the synthetic surface.
From his office at the Fox Theatre on Woodward Avenue in downtown Detroit, Tom Wilson looked out the window and took it all in. He could not be more pleased at what he saw.
"We wanted this to make a positive impact on downtown Detroit, bring some positive attention to Detroit and it has," said Wilson, the CEO and president of Olympia Entertainment, a division of the holdings company of Red Wings owners Mike and Marian Ilitch.
Detroit was once one of the richest cities in America. But now it's the poorest.
When the Ilitch family began to entertain the idea of taking their turn to bring the annual Winter Classic to Detroit, they initially wanted everything to be held at Comerica Park, where the Ilitch-owned Detroit Tigers play baseball.
But the NHL convinced the Ilitchs that there was an opportunity to do something special by taking the main event down the highway to the University of Michigan Stadium and setting an attendance hockey record.
More than 107,000 fans are expected to take in the Red Wings-Maple Leafs hockey game inside the football stadium known as the Big House, which would surpass the 104,173 who watched Michigan defeat Michigan State 5-0 on Dec. 11, 2010, also at the Big House.
The change in plans allowed Comerica Park to hold more events over a two-week span. There were high school and Little Caesars minor hockey games, free skates, and local companies could rent the rink for $1,000 an hour for Christmas parties.
On Friday and Saturday, the Great Lakes Invitational -- usually played at Joe Louis Arena, home of the Red Wings -- took its annual college tournament outside. The OHL played its first couple of outdoor games in league history on Sunday. The AHL took to the ice on Monday.
There will be two alumni games between Detroit and Toronto on New Year's Eve afternoon.
"It's allowed us to do more at all levels of hockey and really make this a bigger event," Wilson said.
The Detroit Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau estimates the financial impact to Detroit, which slid into bankruptcy last summer, will be between $50-million and $60-million, and another $15-million to Ann Arbor.
There aren't too many hotel rooms available from Detroit to Ann Arbor over the next couple of days. Canadians purchased about 30 per cent of the tickets sold for the Winter Classic.
Wilson, a Detroit native, explained that downtown Detroit almost shuts down between Christmas and New Year's because the automobile and its subsidiary businesses shut down during the holidays.
"It's a slow time," Wilson said. "So this really has given some life to the city at this time of the year.
"To be able to have a hockey game with a crowd so big that it may never be beaten is special."
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