By Steve Keating
ANN ARBOR, Michigan (Reuters) - The National Hockey League rang in the New Year in record breaking style and a shootout thriller as the Toronto Maple Leafs beat the Detroit Red Wings 3-2 in the outdoor Winter Classic on Wednesday.
An announced record hockey crowd of 105,491 braved brutal Arctic conditions to fill the massive Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor and were left on the edge on the edge of their frozen seats until the Leafs' Tyler Bozak scored the decisive shootout goal in the fading light and blowing snow.
If confirmed, the crowd would be the biggest ever for a hockey game surpassing the 104,173 set when Michigan State and Michigan met in 2010 at the same stadium dubbed 'The Big House'.
Guinness world record officials were on hand but were not immediately able to confirm the record.
The previous highest NHL attendance came at the first Winter Classic in 2008 in snowy Buffalo when the Sabres and Pittsburgh Penguins faced off in front of a crowd at 71,217 to Ralph Wilson Stadium.
"We know we sold 105,000 plus tickets and we also suspect there were some no shows because we heard stories of people taking more than two and a half hours to get here because of the road conditions," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman told reporters. "It was 13 degrees with a wind chill of minus-1 so I don't know if we set the Guinness attendance record but we set our own record.
"Based on tickets sold we should have (the record) but people were still arriving in the second period so it is hard to know."
The sixth Winter Classic was played in a blizzard as snow swirled around stadium and temperatures plunged to minus 13 Celsius (13 Fahrenheit).
Play was halted several times to clear the ice while two Zambonis were used the entire intermissions, unable to clean the surface fast enough before snow reappeared.
The bitter cold, however, could not spoil the party atmosphere, the snow only adding to the romantic imagery that has been a big part of the outdoor game's huge appeal.
"We couldn't be more pleased the way things went, the crowd was extraordinary, over 100,000 people braved the elements first to get here and then sit outside," beamed Bettman.
This year's Classic was the main event in the week long hockey extravaganza that featured alumni games, junior and minor league hockey games played in Detroit at Comerica Park, home of Major League Baseball's Tigers, pouring an estimated $60 million into the bankrupt city and another $15 million into Ann Arbor's economy.
While the Winter Classic was more about the event than the game for many fans, for the two struggling teams the game was more than an outdoor spectacle with two valuable points on offer.
The Original Six rivals came into the contest sitting on 45 points in the Eastern conference standings looking to tighten their grip on a playoff position.
Following a scoreless opening period the players headed for the warmth of the locker rooms while shivering fans ran for the concourse seeking shelter from the wind and snow.
Detroit broke the deadlock late in the second period when Henrik Zetterberg's centering pass deflected in off the skate of a charging Daniel Alfredsson, triggering a mighty roar from the chilled crowd.
The Maple Leafs tied the score with just 37 seconds remaining in the period when James van Riemsdyk banged home a rebound from the side of the Detroit net.
Toronto took its first lead five minutes into the third when Bozak redirected Dion Phaneuf's shot from the point past Jimmy Howard before Justin Abdelkader hit back for the Wings forcing overtime.
(Editing by Gene Cherry)