ANN ARBOR, Mich. — It will be the biggest game the NHL has ever staged by far. It might turn out to be the best game the league has ever held outdoors. But will it set a world record? We’ll see. That depends on how many people actually show up for the Winter Classic on Wednesday at Michigan Stadium, and the margin might be much thinner than you think.
The NHL attendance record is 71,217, set at the first Winter Classic in 2008 at Ralph Wilson Stadium outside Buffalo. The world record for hockey attendance is 104,173, set at a college game at this same Michigan Stadium. The league has sold 105,500 tickets for this game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Detroit Red Wings.
“That should get us the record,” said John Collins, the NHL’s chief operating officer.
Guinness World Records will also count media members and others who come solely to watch the game. Workers won’t be included, but some league and team officials will, including NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, team owners and front-office personnel.
The NHL should shatter its attendance record by more than 30,000. The league should have the equivalent of five sold-out arenas in the stands as the teams play a meaningful game in a classic winter scene. The Leafs and the Wings are tied in the standings – holding the two wild-card spots in the East – and the forecast calls for cold temperatures and snow.
The sheer size of the spectacle is why the NHL wanted this Winter Classic at the Big House in Ann Arbor and not Comerica Park in Detroit, where Mike Ilitch – owner of the Wings and the Detroit Tigers – hosted a week of college, junior, minor-league and alumni games leading up to the main event. This is what will separate this outdoor game from the rest.
“Every one of these games has been phenomenal,” Collins said. “This one is going to be phenomenal on a scale that frankly nobody’s ever seen before.”
But as far as the world record, here is the deal: The NHL cannot control the weather or the traffic or the parking or scalping, and it can afford only so many no-shows if it’s going to beat 104,173. The league had to agree to a pre-approved accounting method with Guinness, and it chose a barcoded ticketing system. Guinness will not count tickets sold, only those that are scanned. Guinness will not count media members and others who were credentialed, only those present and accounted for. If and when the number reaches 104,174, Guinness can declare a new world record, even if it can't certify the final number until later. Ideally, it will declare a new world record and give the final number in the third period. But if something goes wrong, who knows?
“We can only give the final total once all tickets have been scanned in,” said Alex Angert, an official adjudicator with Guinness, who arrived at the Big House on Tuesday and will oversee the process Wednesday.
Michigan Stadium was built in 1927 with a capacity of 72,000. It has been renovated multiple times over the years. The official capacity topped 100,000 for the first time in 1955. The school says it has drawn more than 100,000 fans for every football game since Nov. 8, 1975 – more than 200 straight. It has routinely announced crowds of more than 110,000 in recent years – as high as 115,109 for this fall’s Notre Dame game – even though the official capacity is now at a high of 109,901. That’s because the school counts tickets sold, not tickets used, plus virtually every other heartbeat in the place.
When Michigan hosted Michigan State in the “Big Chill at the Big House” in 2010, it originally announced an attendance of 113,411. But it was an inflated figure. Some rows were sparsely filled high in one corner of the stadium, and even Michigan hockey coach Red Berenson cracked after the game: “I don’t know where they found all the new seats.” Ticket scanners also froze because of the cold weather, complicating the count. An official from Guinness was on site and certified only 85,451 at the time – still a world record, but not quite as amazing. About a month later, after analyzing photos of the stands, Guinness certified the attendance at 104,073. It now lists it at 104,173.
The NHL does not want that to happen again. Amid all the other preparations for the game, league officials have consulted people from Michigan, Guinness and even the company that makes the scanners. They have experimented with ways to keep the scanners’ batteries from dying in the cold, and they plan to use the kind of hand-warmers fans might put in their mittens. They plan to have backup scanners at each gate. If those fail, they plan to tear the tickets, collect the stubs and scan the barcodes later. They have erected huge signs to help orient fans who have never been to Michigan Stadium, and they have set up at least one serpentine line like you would find at an amusement park, all to keep fans moving well.
As the Leafs practiced at the Big House on Tuesday – surrounded by all the spectacular staging, from the logos to the banners to the seat cushions positioned on every one of the 96 rows – Don Renzulli, the NHL’s executive vice-president of events, met with Angert in a nondescript gray trailer in the parking lot to go over procedures one more time.
NHL officials will meet with the ticket-takers before the game – the same 150-or-so volunteers at Michigan football games – to emphasize the importance of being thorough and accurate, even as tens of thousands of fans line up, eager to get in.
“If it doesn’t register and they just kind of go, ‘Good, go,’ it’s a missed opportunity,” Renzulli said.
This opportunity the NHL doesn’t want to miss. It might not come again, at least for the league, at least not in the foreseeable future.
“Could they do another ‘Big Chill’ two or three years from now and break the number? Yeah, I guess they could,” Renzulli said. “But I think from an NHL standpoint, this is the biggest one we’ll ever have unless we come back to a stadium like this.
“It’s the one time that we have a shot, right? So we want to do everything we can. Hopefully we’ve thought of everything.”