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Brian Burke believes Maple Leaf Nation will conquer The Big House for NHL Winter Classic

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AP

DETROIT — When the NHL approached Brian Burke about a spot in the 2013 Winter Classic, the invitation came with a stipulation.

"Can you sell 40,000 tickets?" league officials inquired.

"Give me 48 hours," the Toronto Maple Leafs' general manager replied with confidence.

They upped the ante — knowing the record-setting environment Michigan Stadium would provide for a possible Original Six match-up between the Maple Leafs and Red Wings.

"Can you sell 50,000?" they asked.

Again, Burke responded without hesitation.

"Give me 72 hours," he said.

Burke was confident he would have no problem pitching an outdoor hockey game pitting, as he put it Thursday inside Comerica Park in Detroit, "Hockeytown against the Center of the Hockey Universe."

In what had become the worst kept secret in possibly professional sports, the League made the Winter Classic showdown official Thursday. The event marks the first tine a Canadian franchise has been part of a Winter Classic.

Was Burke surprised it took five Winter Classics before the NHL crossed into Canada?

No. Was he offended it didn't happen before 2013?

Certainly not.

"Someone asked me if we felt left out — the last Original Six team or the first Canadian team," Burke said Thursday after the league's announcement made the game official.

"No — we're just thrilled to be part of it.

"If we're first, we're proud to be first."

Canadians may boast the 2003 Heritage Classic played in Edmonton between Montreal and the hometown Oilers as the original Winter Classic. But now that a franchise is involved officially in the NHL's annual outdoor affair, Burke has no doubt it will be a hit.

"Maple Leaf Nation will show up in big numbers," Burke said.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said the League and NBC — which has the broadcast rights to the Winter Classic — targeted cities where television ratings could flourish.

Bettman said Thursday television ratings for each of the Winter Classic games have remained consistent. The 2012 edition, playing in Philadelphia and including the Flyers and Rangers, registered the lowest ratings in five years.

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Last year's Winter Classic had a television rating of 2.4 — representing 3.74 million viewers — was slightly down from the 2011 event, which drew a rating of 2.8.

There were minor differences in ratings, Bettman said, depending on what day of the week the game was played on and what time. But the 2013 game, he said, has the potential to raise the Winter Classic to new heights.

He points to Game 7 of the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals when Vancouver and Boston drew the league's highest television audience in 35 years. So when Bettman considered a Detroit-Toronto Winter Classic played potentially in front of 115,000 fans, he knew it could work.

"We anticipate this will establish a new benchmark for us and maybe all sports," Bettman said.

While Detroit is officially the host city for the event, the fact the Winter Classic will be played 40 miles west in Ann Arbor will only heighten the excitement for the 2013 game.

Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch said Thursday he believes the 2013 game — played in front of what could be a world-record crowd — will take the Winter Classic to "incomparable heights."

Detroit coach Mike Babcock's team took part in the 2009 Winter Classic in another Original Six match-up with Chicago at Wrigley Field. Given the opponent and a rivalry that dates back to 1927, Babcock says playing in Michigan Stadium and its 109,901 seats, will help elevate the event like never before.

"Playing in Ann Arbor is going to give more people the opportunity to see it and gave us the biggest stage to celebrate hockey," Babcock said. "To me, the biggest thing was, we're trying to sell our game."

Like Burke, Babcock wasn't taken aback by the fact the Winter Classic had been an All-American event for until now. But he looks forward to a "cross-border" game that will certainly draw fans from two hockey hotbeds and will put them inside the largest sporting venue in North America.

Babcock is no stranger to Michigan Stadium, having attended football games at a university where his daughter attends. Each visit, he has marveled at the size of the stage he calls grandiose and "one that grabs you."

It's an environment his players will skate in next year and for a proud Canadian, it's an event that will have plenty of build up, leading up to what could be a Winter Classic like no other.

"I think you get two countries excited," Babcock said. "Now, you're playing in front of 115,000 and football Saturdays in Ann Arbor is hard to beat, but this is going to be special.

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Jeff Arnold can be reached at jeffarnold24@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @jeff_arnold24.

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