Non-Detroiters don't get Detroit. That is not news. But it is why few outside of the Detroit media seem to have noticed how disrespectful it is that the Winter Classic will, reportedly, be held outside of Hockeytown, USA. Instead of highlighting Detroit with a Classic in one of the greatest hockey cites on Earth--not to mention one of the greatest sports cities in general--the NHL seems bent on gathering recognition for itself by breaking an attendance record at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor. In case you don't know, Ann Arbor isn't even considered to be in the Detroit area. And culturally, Ann Arbor might as well be on a different planet. Growing up in Detroit, Ann Arbor was hardly on my radar. So hosting the game in Ann Arbor is not at all like hosting the game in Detroit, or even particularly near Detroit. Nothing against Ann Arbor, but it's not Detroit. You might as well have the Wings and Leafs play in Toledo or Sarnia (I'm sure the league would if there was a 200,000-seat stadium in either place). Given the sensitivity of Detroiters in regard to the city's image and level of respect, the decision to host the game in Ann Arbor was bound to stir up the emotions of a city never lacking in a local pride that easily becomes defensive.
And rightly so. This game should absolutely be played at Comerica Park, in Detroit. The Red Wings have been far and away the best team in the NHL over the last two decades, and have filled up a great many stadiums in the Sunbelt as a result. And they aren't the Yankees, they built these teams the right way (OK, they might have bought the 2002 Cup, but that's it). They've also played a skilled, but not fancy-pants, style over the whole course of their dominance, garnering multiple copycats (the Canucks admit to this) and helping to usher into the NHL mainstream a style of play that has invaluably made the NHL a more entertaining and respectable league. And Red Wings fans, despite all the hardship that has rocked Michigan, have been among the most loyal. Michigan might be Mississippi North, but Michiganders live hockey like they're north of the border. Ann Arbor, on the other hand, deserves none of the hockey credibility the Classic would bring it (it has enough cred already, having hosted the Big Chill, and having been a great college hockey city already). In short, Detroit is getting shafted when it should be getting put up on a pedestal. How great would a Leafs-Wings game played outside, just off Woodward Avenue?
Unfortunately, that's all a moral argument and in the sports industry, apparently, money and attention trumps morality. It would be just, and right, for Detroit to host the Classic, but it will make more money in Ann Arbor. But it is also not like the NHL and its buddies can go for the money and completely ignore the outrage they know their decision will create. They don't want to piss Wings fans off that much. So they throw us some bones: the old-timers can play at Comerica, maybe the Great Lakes Invitational can be there too. Great, so the two people who watch the alumni game, or whatever it's called, will see the Detroit skyline above Comerica's center field wall, and all those devoted collage hockey fans will have to sit out in the cold in bad seats to watch games on potentially-horrible ice. That is no consolation at all, more like a backhanded compliment: "we know you're a great hockey city that had has carried our league for 20 years, that's why you get to host the old-timers!"
If this plan goes through, let me make this clear: Detroit will not have ever hosted a Winter Classic. Ann Arbor will have done so, with Detroit left waiting to receive the recognition it deserves.
I'll be exploring this issue further on Hockeyinsociety.com, as soon as I can wrap my head around the public/private nature of professional sports franchises. But this much is clear now: the public--the fans--of the Red Wings deserve a Classic in Detroit, but the private interests of the league are poised to trump that interest. So much for "our" Detroit Red Wings.
"Introducing Gary Bettman's profit-making machines--I mean your Detroit Red Wings!"