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Exclusive: Univ. of Michigan, NHL in advanced discussions for 2013 Winter Classic

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Michigan Stadium is known for being the biggest college football venue in the land, playing to crowds of more than 110,000 every fall. But the 84-year-old stadium, affectionately referred to as The Big House, is also no stranger to outdoor hockey.

And that's got the NHL's ears perked up.

Multiple sources told Yahoo! Sports this week that the NHL is in advanced discussions with the University of Michigan about holding the 2013 Winter Classic in Ann Arbor.

One source, who spoke on a condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak on the matter, said Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon wasn't initially sold on the idea of the NHL hosting an outdoor game at Michigan Stadium. But over a matter of a couple of weeks, the source said "something happened to make it go from looking like it could happen to [a point where] it probably will."

In a statement issued last week, Brandon said the NHL had approached him about the Winter Classic but that "there are a lot of complex circumstances that need to be ironed out before anything moves forward." Brandon did not reply to email messages Wednesday.

Athletic department spokesman Dave Ablauf said Wednesday that any confirmation  of an agreement at this point would be "premature." But reached by phone  Wednesday by Yahoo! Sports, Ablauf said, "We're listening."

According to Sports Business Daily this week, "An NHL exec said that the league will make an announcement on next year's [Winter Classic] by the Jan. 29 NHL All-Star Game and that next year's event will 'break records.'"

The two teams being discussed most for the league's annual outdoor game are the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs. One Michigan source said obstacles remaining include what the university's financial take would be, as well as the issue of obtaining a waiver to sell beer at the event.

Michigan Stadium's size alone would give the NHL its biggest bang for its buck.

The initial Winter Classic, played in Buffalo in 2008, drew an NHL-record  attendance of 71,217. Since then, three of the four outdoor games —  played in Chicago's Wrigley Field, Boston's Fenway Park and most recently at Philadelphia's Citizens Bank Park — have averaged almost 42,000 fans.

Last year's event — pitting the Pittsburgh Penguins against the rival Washington Capitals at Pittsburgh's Heinz Field, drew 68,111 — a far cry from what the fan bases from nearby Detroit and Toronto could draw in a venue like Michigan Stadium, which has a capacity of 109,901.

Should the Red Wings host next year's game, the alternative would be Comerica  Park in Detroit, which has a seating capacity of just more than 41,000 seats. This year, Michigan Stadium established a new attendance record, drawing 114,804 fans for a night football game against Notre Dame.

"There's definitely NHL interest [in the venue]," the source said. "It's something they would love to do."

NHL vice president of communications John Dellapina told AnnArbor.com last week: "We don't comment about potential sites for specific Winter Classics until contracts are signed."

In 2010, Michigan Stadium hosted The Big Chill At The Big House, pitting college hockey rivals Michigan and Michigan State in the first outdoor game of its kind in Ann Arbor. The Guinness World Records was on hand to officially calculate attendance, announcing a world record had been set with an official attendance of 104,173 fans.

At the time, Brandon said he would not look to make hosting an outdoor hockey game a regular happening.

"That's not something you do every year," Brandon said last year. "You've got to make it special."

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The college outdoor game at Michigan included a postgame choreographed  fireworks show and a pregame flyover. Talk circulated during the event that if Michigan did host another outdoor game, the school would like to do it in conjunction with the NHL, pointing to a Red Wings-Maple Leafs matchup.

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The source said if the Winter Classic would be played at Michigan Stadium, it would be the only event played. Last year, the Big Chill At The Big House was one of 26  games played, including college and high school games — as well as a public skate.

The source said rink construction would be an NHL operation, unlike a year ago when it was handled by Toronto-based IceRinkEvents.com, which installs rinks for outdoor games around the country. Production costs were estimated at $1 million as workers spent a week building an Olympic-sized rink that stretched between the stadium's 17-yard lines. A large refrigeration system  located outside the stadium's tunnel maintained the proper temperature for the ice.

New York Rangers rookie and former Michigan star Carl Hagelin said in a video posted on MSG.com that playing in the recent Winter Classic wasn't much different than  playing in front of a world-record crowd last year in Ann Arbor. Last year, Hagelin, who grew up in Sweden, said playing outdoors gave him the feeling he could skate forever.

"It's a bigger stage when you're playing in the NHL and being a rookie and all that, but at the same time, the Big House was such a great experience — it was just a blast," Hagelin said in a phone interview Wednesday. "Then this year getting the win against Philly, coming back like that — it was incredible."

Red Wings coach Mike Babcock told reporters in Detroit earlier this month that he believes the Winter Classic doesn't tire with players, many of whom grew up playing outdoors as kids.

"I don't think it's going to get old at all," said Babcock, who coached in the 2009 Winter Classic in Chicago. "I think the players would like to have five of them a year. I think [the league is] doing a real good job marketing it as well.

"It's great that it's in different venues and big-time stadiums."

If indications are true that Michigan Stadium is next in line to play host, it may not get bigger than it would in Ann Arbor's famed Big House.

Jeff Arnold can be reached at jeffarnold24@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @jeff_arnold24. Additional reporting by Eric Adelson and Greg Wyshynski/Yahoo! Sports.

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