With the NHL’s Winter Classic likely heading to the Detroit Metro for next New Year’s Day, an opportunity for an outdoor Great Lakes Invitational in the week before arises. Currently, it is not known whether the Winter Classic will be held at Olympia Entertainment-operated Comerica Park or Michigan Stadium. Either way, the opportunity is too big for all parties involved not to consider, so here are some of the reasons Tech Hockey Guide finds an outdoor GLI attractive.
· Timing Is Right
The most important detail of having an outdoor tournament is having the facility in place. Routinely with the Winter Classic the ice is put in place early in December. Both facilities will be vacant long before the GLI takes place in the last week of December. The NHL and the Red Wings might appreciate having a few big games in the venue before the Winter Classic to give the local crews some practice in managing both the crowds and the ice.
· Outdoor Veterans
Two of the tournament’s regulars, Michigan and Michigan State, have already held outdoor games of their own. The most recent was at Winter Classic candidate venue Michigan Stadium, where GLI co-host Michigan most recently hosted “The Big Chill at the Big House” in 2010. In that game, 104,173 fans watched the Wolverines take on the Michigan State Spartans. Michigan State hosted 74,544 fans in the “Cold War” nine years prior. It seems doubtful that the novelty of outdoor hockey games has worn off to the point that the GLI draw would be worse than, say, Joe Louis Arena capacity. And if the Winter Classic is ultimately held at Comerica Park, the GLI could appeal to fans who miss out on tickets to the NHL game.
· Big Games Draw Well
As co-host, Michigan Tech is familiar with hosting large events in southern Michigan. In 2004 as Michigan Tech rebuilt its football program on the backs of alumni, the Huskies hosted the “Bash at the Big House” at Michigan Stadium where they took on Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference foe Grand Valley State. The fundraising event attracted 50,123 fans, one of the largest crowd in NCAA Division II history. A large base of current Michigan Tech students, alumni, friends and family in southern Michigan has the potential to draw strong attendance numbers, to say nothing of the support Michigan and Michigan State have in the area.
· GLI Needs a Jump-Start
Even though considered the top college hockey holiday tournament, attendance has waned since the tournament’s peak in the early 80’s. An outdoor game could give a much-needed jump-start to the GLI. Back in 1984 a championship matchup between Michigan Tech and Michigan State drew 21,576 fans, the largest indoor college hockey crowd ever until the recent Frozen Four at Ford Field. In the new millennium championship attendance averaged 16,269, well below the peak draw.
· Fourth Team Fan Appeal
Next year’s invitee, St. Cloud State, doesn’t bring much to the table when it comes to traveling fan bases – that is, if the tournament is held at Joe Louis Arena. If an outdoor GLI becomes reality, though, the tournament becomes much more appealing to St. Cloud State fans. The NHL has yet to hold a Winter Classic in Minnesota, neither has any major NCAA Division I game been played outdoors in Minnesota. An outdoor game would become a must-see event for the St. Cloud State fan base and should attract more traveling fans than a typical tournament.
Ultimately, the Great Lakes Invitational may be better suited for Comerica Park in downtown Detroit. It would offer a more intimate atmosphere and a greater opportunity for selling out the event. Also, Detroit provides more hotel rooms for hosting the fan bases of six teams involved in an outdoor GLI and Winter Classic. Both Joe Louis Arena and Comerica Park are operated by Olympia Entertainment and a contract for next season’s GLI has been signed for a number of years. In downtown Detroit, hosting the semi-finals at Joe Louis Arena remains a valuable option if the preference is to hold only the consolation and championship games outdoors. Above all, a Winter Classic and expanded GLI in downtown Detroit would provide a much-needed boost to the Detroit economy. However, financially the schools may have the opportunity for a larger cut if it is held on Michigan’s campus instead of an Olympia Entertainment operated property.
It will be interesting to see if an outdoor Great Lakes Invitational comes to fruition with the impending announcement of a Detroit area Winter Classic. There’s no doubt it would bring much need notoriety to a tournament that has stagnated. Right now everything is just speculation.