It's more than just a game

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- You walk out into the empty expanse of Michigan Stadium, the ice glistening, flawless in the late morning, and it strikes you again, what a cool idea this whole Winter Classic thing is.

If it's possible for a place that will on New Year's Day afternoon hold 107,000 fans to be intimate, that is the feeling at The Big House. When NHL COO John Collins -- the man who breathed life into the Winter Classic, in 2008 -- walked into the stadium on Monday, he imagined the faces, as close to the action as at any of the previous five Winter Classics.

"I'm imagining how loud it's going to be," Collins told ESPN.com.

You can debate the logic of having six outdoor games this season -- lagging ticket sales for some upper-bowl seats for the Dodger Stadium game between the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks on Jan. 25 and a lack of groundswell of support for the Heritage Classic in Vancouver have brought that debate into sharper focus -- but as the NHL prepares to roll out its signature regular-season event, we are reminded once again of the Winter Classic's unique status, not just in the game but in all of sport.

In the end, the NHL believes it will sell out all six outdoor games -- there are fewer than 10,000 seats left for the second game at Yankee Stadium and a similar number left for the Dodger Stadium game, with four weeks left to sell them -- but they could have sold out Michigan Stadium twice over for Wednesday's game between Detroit and Toronto, Collins said.

Delayed a year because of last season's labor stoppage, there is little to suggest this won't be the most successful of the six Winter Classics. It is different in that the game itself is separate from the other events that have become attached to the Winter Classic banner. The Ilitch family, owners of the Red Wings and the Detroit Tigers, were adamant that downtown Detroit play a starring role in the event, and Comerica Park has or will play host to a series of hockey events, including major junior games, an American Hockey League game and, on Dec. 31, two eagerly anticipated alumni games featuring hockey icons, including former Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman.

This will be the sixth incarnation and enough time has passed that the Winter Classic has its own history, its own catalog of memories and moments. We have seen the picture often enough but it never fails to give us pause, the shot of Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby looking up at the darkening skies above Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, N.Y., on New Year's Day 2008.

We were skeptical of that first event. In fact, we wrote at the time that the NHL would be best served not engaging in too many of these events. What did we know? On some levels, playing a game in the home of the Buffalo Bills seemed outlandish. To what end? What would be accomplished?

But watching the Buffalo Sabres and the Penguins make their way to the ice surface on that Jan. 1 afternoon, each player taking in the jam-packed stadium, the snow lazily falling out of the late-afternoon sky, each player bearing the same look of -- what was it? Awe? Anticipation? -- you understood that this was something, not just different, but in some ways inspiring.

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