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10 years ago today, the NHL’s Winter Classic was at Wrigley Field

A look back at hockey at the ol’ ballyard.

Al Yellon

In about two hours from the time this article is posted, the Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins will face off in the NHL’s annual Winter Classic game at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana.

Now an enduring feature of the middle of the hockey season and New Year’s Day, today’s game is the 11th Winter Classic and it’s been held in such diverse stadia as Fenway Park, Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor and Nationals Park in Washington.

But in 2009, it was still a bit of a novelty, when the game came to Wrigley Field in Chicago. It was just the second such game, the first was the previous year at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo.

10 years ago today, January 1, 2009, the Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings faced off at Wrigley Field in front of a festive full house on a day that wasn’t that much colder than some we had at Wrigley for baseball last April. At the time, the Blackhawks were just at the beginning of a renaissance. They’d been mostly an afterthought on the Chicago sports scene for most of the first decade of the 2000s. Just 18 months after this game, they’d win the first of three Stanley Cups in a six-year span.

This year’s Blackhawks aren’t as good as those Cup winners, but it should still be fun to watch them play outdoors this afternoon.

Here, in its entirety (with a few minor edits that didn’t change anything of substance), is my recap from Wrigley of my experience of that afternoon, a wonderful time despite the Hawks’ 6-4 loss to the Wings.

And still, no Chicago team has won a game at Wrigley Field since September 21, 2008. (I liked the touch the scoreboard operators used with the yellow numbers for scores of periods in progress, identical to the baseball procedure for innings still going on.)

In front of 40,818 at Wrigley Field this afternoon, the defending Stanley Cup champion Red Wings defeated the Blackhawks 6-4, letting the young upstarts from Chicago take a 3-1 first-period lead before showing exactly why they are the defending champions.

For the last two seasons, former Cub president John McDonough has been working diligently to get the Blackhawks back on the front burner of Chicago sports fans’ thoughts. On that score, he has succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. While there was a significant minority of Detroit fans in Wrigley Field today (some of whom, probably Tigers fans in baseball, had never been there before — I heard some walking around Clark Street after the game saying, “Where do we go now?”), it was an overwhelmingly Blackhawk fan crowd, not just people coming to Wrigley for an event, though it surely was that. Blackhawk jerseys old (“LARMER”, “RUUTU” among them) and current — many Winter Classic replicas, mostly Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews models — were on display everywhere. It’s about the only time you’ll see red on display everywhere at Wrigley and not think “Get all these Cardinals fans out of here!”, although with both teams having red as a principal color, it wasn’t just Blackhawks red jerseys in evidence.

That, of course, led to many chants of “Let’s Go Red Wings!” followed by “Detroit sucks!” from Hawks fans, and though there is a deep-seated and strong rivalry between the two teams, it never seemed malicious or hate-filled — fans of both teams seemed genuinely excited to be seeing this once-in-a-lifetime game. It was nice to meet Christy, the Red Wings SBN blogger at Winging It In Motown.

For me as a Cubs fan, the experience was surreal, seeing snow and ice and two large video screens (one of which was almost directly placed over my usual seat in the left-field bleachers) in my summertime baseball palace. And that is the reason the NHL staged this game in this venue. Today was not only a game to help put the Blackhawks back on the Chicago sporting map — something it succeeded in, perhaps beyond McDonough’s wildest dreams — but it was also a coming-out party for the NHL. The high profile of Wrigley Field, the two large cities and Original Six NHL teams involved, will likely make this the highest-rated NHL telecast in the USA in decades, if not ever, and the good contest may, at last, get some casual fans back into the sport. (Say, how did that “card stunt” look on TV? It looked cool at the park, though I couldn’t tell what we were all spelling out. I got a card that was red on one side, blue on the other.)

It’s already done so for me, and though the Blackhawks were dominated today, there is no doubt that they have talent, will (barring an unforeseen collapse) make the playoffs, and once that happens, who knows how far things can go?

The weather cooperated — it was cloudy, which helped for visibility, and the temperature of 30 degrees wasn’t that much colder than several recent Cubs Opening Day games (for comparison’s sake, the average temperature of the last 20 home openers is 44 degrees, and that includes the strike-delayed April 28, 1995 opener when it was 61 degrees). The sun tried to poke through the clouds late in the afternoon, but by then the angle of the sun wouldn’t have caused too many shadows even if it had blazed through brightly. The wind was a bit strong, flapping the flags on the scoreboard (not standings flags as they would be during the baseball season, they appeared to be flags with Winter Classic logos and a couple with sponsor logos — that sponsor, incidentally, slapped logos on the back of the penalty box, which blocked part of the near-side view), and thus I was doubly lucky to be in a seat behind the first-base on-deck circle, which not only gave a nice view for the $75 price, but was blocked from the wind. Since all seats were reserved, they didn’t restrict people without bleacher tickets from going into the bleachers; I took a walk around before the game. The view from my regular seat in the LF corner would have been pretty good, and if you were high enough in the corners of the bleachers, you also had a pretty good view for $75.

So now I’ve been in Wrigley Field for a live sporting event in every month except December, February, and ... November. Perhaps about ten months from now, that last one will change.

I don’t profess to be an expert on hockey, so I’ll let others do more detailed analysis. Below is a photo gallery of happenings in and surrounding today’s game. It was great fun. Hockey, you’ve got me back. This won’t be my last Blackhawks game. Go Hawks!