Two Ontario League games added to 2013 Winter Classic schedule

Last year’s Winter Classic was in Philadelphia between the Flyers and New York Rangers. (Tim Kolupanowich/CM)

By: Tim Kolupanowich, Executive Editor

@TimKolupan_

The festivities for the 2013 Winter Classic being held in Detroit keep growing larger. Two days ago it was announced there would be two alumni games featuring 100 past greats from two storied, Original Six francises the hometown Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs on Dec. 31 in Comerica Park, home of the Tigers before the main event the following Jan. 1 at Michigan Stadium.

Today on the Ontario Hockey League’s website, it was announced there will be two OHL games held at Comerica Park as well on Dec. 29. There will be a double header that day as the Windsor Spitfires will take on the Saginaw Spirit at 1:00 followed by the Plymouth Whalers and London Knights at 5:00.

The Winter Classic has become a marquee event for the NHL, drawing some of the biggest rating the league has seen in a long time even if last year’s numbers dropped. The average Winter Classic numbers are on par with the Stanley Cup final which shows just how popular this event has become. Adding major junior hockey to the schedule will produce even more of a draw, if they can get a curious American market to become interested.

Hopefully enough fans south of the 49th parallel will want to check out a part of the sports not given nearly enough attention in the U.S. Having had the opportunity to spend a few months in Canada last year, I got to watch major junior hockey for the first time and it is every bit as exciting as the NHL. Rivalries are just as bitter and players are trying to contain their raw talents as they decide their future in the game. It’s a shame there’s no coverage in the states when it’s every bit as exciting as college sports. Save for the odd game on the NHL network, it’s a total blackout down here for the Canadian Leagues so two OHL games will make the Detroit Winter Classic that much more special.

That makes five games on the schedule for now and that’s not including the festival taking place from Dec. 15-31.

Whalers GM and coach Mike Vellucci is from Farmngton, Mich., just a half hour away from Detroit and is very much looking forward to the Classic. From the article on OHL.com:

“As a kid, growing up in Detroit, you always wanted to come to Tiger Stadium, or now to Comerica Park,” Vellucci said, as he stood on the Comerica Park field, just outside the first base line.  “So it’s exciting standing here right now.  There was a lot of talk about it before, but now, it’s coming to a realization when you stand here and look at all the seats and how it’s going to be designed.”

Although the Whalers have developed a strong niche of fans in Plymouth and the surrounding community, playing in the Winter Festival will present an opportunity to increase awareness to many more fans.  Vellucci was quick to mention the talent level of the OHL and Canadian Hockey League and other factors that are commonplace in the league.

“It is great for the awareness,” Vellucci said.  “But the game will showcase the talent that comes out of our league.  We have four first round picks on our team (Tom Wilson, Stefan Noesen, Rickard Rakell, JT Miller), London’s going to have a few and Windsor has a few.  It’s exciting to showcase the talent.

“I think the rest of Detroit-area is going to see how passionate the Windsor fans and London fans are – they both sell out their buildings – 9,100 (in London) and 6,100 (in Windsor).  They’re all going to be here, plus more.  It should be a great crowd and hopefully a capacity crowd watching OHL hockey.”

It will certainly be exciting, especially the Knights-Whalers game. Last season they finished first and second in the OHL’s Western Conference with 99 and 97 points respectively in 68 games. The Knights would win the J. Ross Robertson Cup as winners of the OHL and went on to the Memorial Cup final where they lost to the Shawinigan Cataractesin overtime of the championship game.

The Whalers were defeated in seven games in the second round to the Kitchener Rangers, but had they best season since they went 49-14-2-3 in 2006-07.

The Spitfires had a down year last season with only 65 points and a first round loss to the Knights, but have been one of the most successful OHL franchises the previous four seasons, putting up 94, 115, 106 and 84 points and winning the OHL and Memorial Cup championships in 2009 and 2010.

The Spirit recorded 74 points last season and were defeated in the second round by the Knights.

There are many talented kids waiting to break into the NHL and the Canadian Leagues (the OHL along with the Quebec League and Western League) is where many choose to hone their craft. It will be great to se them be appreciated in a major American market for a change.

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