DETROIT — The inaugural meeting between the Toronto St. Patricks and Detroit Cougars took place on Jan. 4, 1927 at Border Cities Arena in Windsor, Ontario. The arena — nicknamed “The Barn” — was the Cougars’ first home.
Detroit, which later assumed the Red Wings moniker, was waiting on the construction of its next home, Olympia Stadium — coined “The Old Red Barn.” The St. Patricks also adopted a different name, becoming the Maple Leafs.
While the Cougars and St. Patricks tangled on the other side of the Detroit River, Michigan Stadium was being built just 40 miles to the west, set to host its first game less than nine months later.
Eighty-six years later, again on the first Tuesday in January, Toronto and Detroit will face off again.
But this time, it’ll be different. It won’t be at a barn, it’ll be at the Big House. On Thursday, the National Hockey League announced that the 2013 Winter Classic will be held at Michigan Stadium, featuring two of the Original Six teams.
The Maple Leafs hold the edge in the all-time record by the slimmest of margins — 276-275. At one point in 1986, the teams also met at Yost Ice Arena for a preseason game, which ended in a 4-4 tie.
To break the deadlock nature of the rivalry, the competition is going outside. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman called the Winter Classic the “ultimate rubber match.”
But how the Winter Classic came to Ann Arbor is a longer story.
It began with The Big Chill at the Big House, a Dec. 11, 2010 matchup between Michigan and Michigan State. The event drew a world-record shattering crowd of 104,173 — the average attendance for the Winter Classic is 53,045.
The wheels were turning for Bettman and Co., who wanted a chance to reclaim the biggest stage in hockey for themselves.
Then, on the day after Thanksgiving, Michigan Athletic Director Dave Brandon fielded a call from the NHL.
“The question was: ‘Would you consider it?’ ” Brandon recalled. “My response was: ‘We’ll consider anything.’ ”
His mind was elsewhere, though. The next day was what Brandon referred to as “a small football game” — Michigan-Ohio State football.
In Toronto, it was Brian Burke, Maple Leafs president and general manager, who took a phone call from the commissioner’s office.
“Can you sell 40,000 tickets?” league officials asked.
“Give me 48 hours,” Burke said.
If Toronto could produce those kind of numbers, the crowd would be evenly split. They went back to Burke.
“Can you sell 50,000?” they asked.
Again, Burke responded with confidence.
“Give me 72 hours,” he said firmly.
Toronto was in. The roadblock was coercing Red Wings and Detroit Tigers owner Mike Ilitch into allowing the league to host the Winter Classic at a site other than Comerica Park, the home of the Tigers.
Comerica Park was a perfectly suitable venue. But the NHL wasn’t looking for suitable. It wanted a spectacle.
After discussions with the NHL, the Ilitch family and Red Wings agreed to host the inaugural Hockeytown Winter Festival in Detroit, in lieu of the game. The festival will feature the Great Lakes Invitational and a host of other games and events at a rink stretched across the infield at Comerica Park.
“We want to make this big in terms of attendance at the Big House, but big in terms of trying to involve as many different people as possible,” said Red Wings general manager Ken Holland.
“(The Ilitches) are passionate about the city of Detroit. But they’re also passionate about the NHL. Taking our team, our brand, our league on the biggest stage to try and promote our game is a win-win.”
Brandon brought John Collins, the NHL’s chief operating officer, and a handful of Michigan and Red Wings staffers to the Big House in early December to discuss logistics.
The rain pounded on the day they visited — not a pleasant open house for the Big House.
“We walked down to the end of the tunnel and the sheets of water were pouring down on the tunnel, so we never even came out on the field,” Brandon said. “But they peeked, and thankfully we were up in the club area. And they really got a sense for what we had here.
“We talked a lot about the Big Chill and how we did what we did. And then it was a function of, could we come up with an arrangement where the economics were right and the logistics could be managed and we could kind of jump through all the hoops? (And) we did.”
Among those discussions, Brandon highlighted the debate over allowing alcohol in the Big House. Though not permitted at home football games, the NHL’s Michigan Stadium lease will allow alcohol sales in the stadium.
Brandon also cited the difficulty of maintaining a professional-level ice rink on the Big House turf, even after the success of the Big Chill, saying it takes a lot of “infrastructure and power and maintenance and preparation.”
“This stadium is normally mothballs and closed up toward the end of November until the following spring,” Brandon said. “It became a part of activating a stadium on a holiday, when school is closed and a lot of people are gone.
“There were more moving parts than I thought there were going to be when we first started talking.”
Bettman emphasized that Brandon’s patience and attention to detail were invaluable in the entire process, from November to Thursday’s press conferences.
“When you’re dealing with an event of this magnitude, there are always going to be issues,” Bettman said. “But we couldn’t have done this without Dave Brandon.”
With the contract signed and professional hockey officially coming to the Big House in the 2013 Winter Classic, it’s time for reactions. Brandon said he received hundreds of comments — and only one of them negative.
One guy sent me an e-mail and said, ‘Shame on you,’ Brandon said. “It was a three-word e-mail.”
With a crowd of 115,000 expected when the Maple Leafs and Red Wings skate at the Big House, one detractor isn’t too hard to ignore.