Winter in the Windy City. As Chicago’s boys of summer are in the grip of their annual hiberna-tion, the statue of Mr. Cub, Ernie Banks, main-tains its lonely sentinel outside historic Wrigley Field, which seems as dark and dormant as the famed ivy-covered walls inside.
MORE ON THE WINTER CLASSIC
But today is different. The streets surrounding the venerable old ballpark, normally alive with the crack of the bat and the pop of the glove, echo with the sounds of skates carving up a fresh sheet of ice and the thunder of pucks pounding off the end boards.
If only for one winter day, the NHL’s Winter Classic has breathed life into this 95-year-old baseball cathedral, just as the hometown Blackhawks have brought a breath of fresh air to a city desperate for a return to the glory days of Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita.
“This unique, special place is 95 years old and has had its share of great moments,” says NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. “We’d like to think that today is up there with those great moments.”
As workers put the finishing touches on the rink situated between first and third base lines, out on Waveland and Sheffield Avenues there’s a real buzz as throngs of fans are dressed in the colors of the day.
“What the heck is a Red Wing anyway?” screams a fan sporting a Chicago Blackhawks replica jersey.
“Stanley Cup champions, baby,” fires back a quick retort from one of the Detroit faithful.
Welcome to trash talking, Winter Classic style.
This marks the third time the NHL has taken its game outdoors during the regular season. The first, in 2003, was held in Edmonton, Alberta in brutal sub-zero temperatures. Last year’s contest between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Buffalo Sabres at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, N.Y., with its snow and a dramatic shootout, made for the perfect setting to sell the game to a national television audience.
“[Last year] it kind of felt like you were in one of those little balls where you shake it up and the snow was flying all around. I’m sure it looked amazing on TV,” says Anchorage native Ty Conklin, who oddly enough has played in all three games, with the Oilers, Penguins and now the Red Wings.
But nothing can compare to playing a game in the “friendly confines” of Wrigley Field. More than 240,000 fans logged on to the online lottery for the slim chance of snatching up the few tickets available to the masses.
Among the announced crowd of 40,818 were a number of youth hockey players and their parents from the Amateur Hockey Association of Illinois sitting along the first and third base lines in seats that fetch top dollar for a Cubs game.
The NHL and AHAI made close to 2,600 of the precious ducats available to registered youth hockey players for an incredible $25 a ticket. After weeding out the middle-aged ticket brokers posing as Peewees from Peoria, AHAI selected 1,300 kids to buy a pair of tickets for the game.
“When it comes to hockey in and around Chicago, there’s been a renewed vigor because of the Blackhawks. It’s been the perfect storm with the marketing, talent and ground swell of getting around one of the city’s all-time favorite teams,” says AHAI President Mike Mullally, who was a classmate of John McDonough, architect of the Blackhawk revival, at Notre Dame High School in Chicago.
“The hype of the Winter Classic is going to do a lot to pique interest in our game. I think AHAI and USA Hockey do a good job of capturing kids who are interested in playing. Now, because of this game and excitement surrounding the Blackhawks, we’re creating interest for other kids to want to play hockey.”
Meanwhile, an auxiliary rink located in short centerfield plays host to games of shinny hockey with kids from various local youth hockey associations and diversity programs facing off in the hours leading up to the opening drop of the puck.
In groups of eight they march out with their skate guards on, ready to play in front of fans and TV cameras.
“It’s kind of scary because you don’t want to fall in front of all those people. It would be kind of embarrassing,” says 10-year-old Maggie Blunk, who is out there with her older brother Brandon.
Playing in his third Winter Classic, Detroit goaltender Ty Conklin kicks aside a shot from Chicago forward Andrew Ladd.
Play is halted long enough to line the entrance to the field where the big ‘kids’ enter the field from the dugouts to the pop and sizzle of flames and fireworks.
“With the big kids on the big rink and the little kids on the little rink, it shows that there’s a connection between [Blackhawks stars] Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews and these little guys, who one day are going to be playing on the big ice,” says Blackhawks Director of Youth Hockey Annie Camins in between rounding up stray hockey sticks and buckling helmet straps before the kids march back out to the ice.
"Just to be out there and playing in a game on Wrigley Field was a pretty neat experience."
For several of the big kids, the Winter Classic is more than a cool way to ring in the New Year. It was a chance to go home again.
Brett Lebda grew up in Buffalo Grove, 30 miles northwest of Wrigley. He spent many a summer afternoon watching the Cubbies along with the rest of the Bleacher Bums.
“I love the Cubs, grew up on the Cubs and still go to a lot of games during the summer,” says Lebda, who scored his third goal of the season early in the third period. “I’m usually on the other side of the fence sitting in the stands. Just to be out there and playing in a hockey game on Wrigley Field was a pretty neat experience.”
The same holds true for Chris Chelios. Now playing in his 25th year in the league, the league’s elder statesman doesn’t get excited about too many regular season games. But growing up in the South Side of Chicago, he knows all about the Wrigley mystique.
“It was one game, but an exciting game. Everybody was talking about it,” says Chelios. “I think this event will sink in when I’m finally across the street at [Chicago sports bar] Murphy’s Bleachers celebrating with my friends and family. That’s when it’ll really feel like home again.”
This marks the 701st time the Blackhawks and Red Wings have clashed, and the second time in three nights. Thanks to a resurgence of the Blackhawks, the series is relevant again as the foes are battling for first place in the Central Division. But this game is bigger than two points in the standings.
“I don’t care if you’re Chris Chelios and you’re 46 years old, it’s a thrill to be on the ice,” says Red Wings Head Coach Mike Babcock.
“I think over the two days … our guys were like they were 12 years old out there. And to me, that’s what makes it so good. It’s energizing. It’s not Ground Hog Day again. In the National Hockey League lots of times it’s Ground Hog Day.”
For Patrick Kane, who is 26 years and 23 NHL seasons Chelios’ junior, it’s hard not to get caught up in the hype.
“To go out there and see 40,000 fans screaming and yelling it is a really cool feeling. Sitting on the bench and looking at the crowd, the whole atmosphere was really unreal,” says Kane, who never spent much time playing outdoors in his hometown of Buffalo.
“To be playing a hockey game on a baseball field was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that most of us won’t have a chance to do again. I cherished the experience, and if I could ever do it again I would love to.”
So would the NHL. For a league desperate to raise its profile in the eyes of the American sporting public, staging an outdoor hockey game in one of the most storied ballparks in the country was, pardon the pun, a home run.
This year’s NBC broadcast sparked the NHL’s best overnight regular-season television rating in nearly 34 years, a 12 percent increase over last year’s snowy showcase in Buffalo.
Couple that with a rabid demand for any item slapped with a Winter Classic logo, from the $12 coffee cup to the $189 replica Kane jersey, and one would have to think that the NHL has stumbled onto a winning formula. Now, the question is, what do you do for an encore?
No matter where the puck drops next, it’ll be a tough act to follow.
The scene was perfect, the rivalry was perfect and the ice was perfect. Even Mother Nature cooperated, ringing in the New Year with cloudy skies and temperatures hovering just below freezing when the puck was dropped at 12:35.
Even the outcome, a 6-4 decision for the Red Wings that padded their Central Division lead, couldn’t put a damper on the day.
The jawing continues as the fans stream out of Wrigley Field and past the statue of Mr. Cub. For the 40,000 who were there, and for the players on both teams, it’s hard not to recite Banks’ famous catch phrase that captured his love of the game.
“Let’s play two.”
Could there be anything better, especially in the “friendly confines” of Wrigley Field?