The NHL confirmed on Thursday what Toronto hockey fans had long suspected – the Maple Leafs will participate in next season's Winter Classic.

The league announced on Thursday that the Detroit Red Wings would host the Leafs in an outdoor game on Jan. 1, 2013 at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbour, about 70 kilometres west of Detroit.

Leafs President and General Manager Brian Burke expressed his excitement on Thursday after the Leafs were chosen as the first Canadian team to participate in the six-year history of the event.

Burke said hockey may be a Canadian game, but it was U.S. television attention that drives the league, and the Leafs' inclusion in the outdoor game was a sign the NHL believed they would be a draw.

The Leafs, meantime, have been chomping at the bit ever since rumours began to swirl late last year. Burke said every player on the Leafs roster is excited to play in the outdoor game.

"I would say every single player on the team has come up, either singly or in groups of two or three, and asked me, ‘Is it true?' They are so excited," Burke told CTV News Channel on Thursday.

"There are snapshots. There are things you remember, moments you vividly recall even in your old age. And this will be one of those games. These players will remember the score of this game until they go to their graves."

As part of the Winter Classic, HBO has routinely followed the two teams through the first half of the season to film the documentary show 24/7. Burke said he does not want cameras running behind the scenes of the Leafs season but would agree to it as part of the Winter Classic.

"If that is part of the Winter Classic then that is the price we have to pay," he said. "If the league asks you to participate in an event it is an honour and you go. And if 24/7 is part of if we are doing it. I'll make sure I don't have a big part in it."

Burke said the league asked him if the Leafs could sell 40,000 tickets to a game in Ann Arbour. Burke responded, "Give me 48 hours." Burke said he believes Leafs fans would fill the stadium given the chance.

"We have the best fans in pro sports. They will travel distances. Wherever we play we see blue," he said. "We will absolutely hammer this thing. If they give us 80,000 tickets, we will have 80,000 there in blue."

Commissioner Gary Bettman said he anticipated the next year's Winter Classic to surpass previous events and be the largest and most successful game in NHL history.

"These two Original Six rivals will take this event to a new, record-setting level," Bettman said at a press conference on Thursday. "Our fans love the Winter Classic, our teams and players love the Winter Classic, our broadcasters, our business partners love it."

Known as "The Big House," Michigan Stadium is capable of holding more than 100,000 fans and the game is widely expected to set a new record for attendance at a hockey game.

"Even with 115,000 or more tickets available, we still won't have enough to satisfy the demand," Bettman said.

A Dec. 11, 2010 outdoor game at The Big House between the University of Michigan and Michigan State University drew 113,411 fans -- a Guinness world record for a hockey game, according to The Canadian Press.

Bettman called the Winter Classic a regular-season NHL hockey game "freed from the limits of an indoor arena and let loose under the open sky."

This season's Winter Classic saw the New York Rangers defeat the Philadelphia Flyers 3-2 at Citizens Bank Park before about 45,000 fans in Philadelphia.

Other cities that have hosted the Winter Classic include Buffalo, Chicago, Boston, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.

Besides the main game in Ann Arbour, the NHL will hold several events at Comerica Park in Detroit.

Those include:

  • two NCAA college hockey games as part of the Great Lakes Invitational Tournament
  • a regular-season AHL game between the Toronto Marlies and the Grand Rapids Griffins
  • two regular-season OHL games
  • high-school and youth hockey

Bettman estimated that the Comerica Park events alone would bring 150,000 people to downtown Detroit.

The showpiece event will be a game between the alumni of the Red Wings and Maple Leafs, both Original Six franchises.