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Cold-weather competition nothing new to Wrigley

Tuesday, 12.16.2008 / 3:42 PM / Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic 2009

By Stuart Shea - Special to NHL.com

Ah, you can't beat fun at the old ballpark.

Harry Caray, the legendary baseball announcer who passed away in 1998, likely never imagined hockey fun at this old ballpark, Wrigley Field. But without a bat or ball in sight, Jan. 1, 2009 will be a Classic Day at one of sports' most storied homes.

The Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic (1 p.m. Eastern, NBC, CBC, RDS, NHL Radio, XM Radio) features the resurgent Chicago Blackhawks hosting their Central division rivals, the powerhouse defending Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings. It's a matchup hot enough to warm the heart of even the most frozen fan.

It's not as if loyal denizens of Wrigley Field have never felt a shiver. Those winds blowing in from Lake Michigan, just a few blocks to the East, can turn a 75-degree day into a nightmare for anyone sitting out of the sun under the upper deck.

And there's clearly something chilling about late September and October games in the ancient ball yard, one which despite seeing National League action for nearly 100 years has never crowned a World Champion. The last World Series game? It came in 1945, several months after Maurice Richard became the first NHL player to score 50 goals in a season.

Then you've got all those late fall and early winter games the Chicago Bears played there. Yes, the Monsters of the Midway trod the grass at Wrigley for 330 total games from 1920 to 1970, and their 1963 NFL championship victory over the New York Giants in freezing temperatures is one of the city's great sports moments. Mike Ditka, "Da Coach" of the 1986 Super Bowl, played a pioneering bruising and nimble-footed tight end for that '63 team.

But any chill that the winds, and history, may have in store for some 40,000 fans at Wrigley Field on Jan. 1 will be no match for the competitive fire that Red Wings and Blackhawks fans will bring to the Winter Classic. The Midwest clubs' Original Six grudge match is always entertaining, and with the eyes of Chicago, and the hockey world, on the two squads, sparks are sure to fly. To wit, the teams have played twice this year, resulting in almost mirror-image seesaw but ultimately tied regulation sessions, scoreless overtimes and victorious Detroit shootouts.

Fans can work to stay warm with coats, gloves, hats, mufflers and hot beverages. But what will it be like on the ice for the players, only two of whom have seen action in front of this many fans, or in these conditions? Detroit goalie Ty Conklin played in last year's NHL Winter Classic plust the Heritage Classic at Edmonton in 2003. Brian Campbell, signed by Chicago over the summer, suited up for the Sabres in Buffalo last New Year's Day.

Sure, members of the Red Wings and Blackhawks grew up playing pond hockey or frozen-park knock-around in Canada, Europe, or the U.S., but elbowing your 9-year-old cousin Serge out of the way to find a loose puck in the snow bank is different than trying to evade the Wings' Brad Stuart or Chicago's Dustin Byfuglien with winds howling, snow flying and multitudes screaming.

The snow bank looks pretty good given that prospect.

The teams, and the league, are preparing for the worst. The average high temperature for Chicago on this date is just over freezing (33 F., 1 C.), but the city's prevailing winds could drop the wind-chill factor sharply.

So what's the problem with snow and cold? Aren't those ideal conditions for a hockey game?

It depends who you ask. Some players are clearly excited about taking the ice in the open air, a sort of childhood dream writ large. But for Dan Craig, the outdoors can be great -- or just the opposite. It's all in the timing.

Craig, the NHL's Facility Operations Manager -- or, as he is more commonly called, "The Ice Guru" -- supervised the construction of open-air arenas for regular-season games in Edmonton in 2003 and Buffalo last season, needs a buffer of decent weather to actually have his crew lay down the surface that holds the water, install the side and end boards, then run the water from Wrigley Field's archaic spigots to flood the game rink and the "little rink" or auxiliary rink. None of these tasks can be done effectively in a blizzard or in sub-zero temps.

There is no sure forecasting, of course, that the weather in Chicago on Jan. 1 will be brutal or ideal. Everyone associated with this game is crossing their fingers for playable conditions. Nobody wants to risk injury or frostbite for players or fans or compromise game quality. In fact, the league has ruled that the teams will switch goals at the mid-point of the third period to avoid any unfair wind advantage for either team.

 
One more thing: Although this game is a showcase for the NHL and the sport of ice hockey (emphasis on "ice"), it's no exhibition.

"This is a regular season game," Craig says, "and none of our guys can forget that. There are two points on the table."

The ideal weather pattern for Craig -- who becomes The Weather Channel's most obsessive fan every time he takes to the road to construct an outdoor arena -- would be cool temperatures and little precipitation until a day or so before the game. And should the temperatures drop to near zero a day prior to game time, that's just fine with Craig, because such that change would help keep the two-inch-thick ice nice and frozen.

Memories of the 2003 Heritage Classic in Edmonton, when Montreal goaltender Jose Theodore wore a toque to ward off chills, still resonate with the more than 57,000 fans who froze through it. Preparations for that game went well, according to Craig, who recalls "the weather leading up to the game in Edmonton was letter-perfect." Temperatures were cool, but not frigid, for several days before the contest, then about six hours before game time, snow began to fall and a wicked cold front blew in.

Last year's inaugural Winter Classic in Buffalo was far more temperate, despite snow, and the pleasant conditions allowed hockey fans, and the sports world in general, to see Sidney Crosby, Thomas Vanek, Evgeni Malkin and Ryan Miller at their best.

The NHL feels that this year's matchup will equally exciting.

Chicago hockey is enjoying a renaissance, as a talented young Hawks squad has won the hearts of both new supporters and longtime fans. The Hawks' new President, John McDonough—who earned his stripes across town with the Cubs—used his baseball connections to help snag Chicago, and Wrigley, as the location for the Winter Classic.

The Windy City, The Blackhawks, and Wrigley Field are great fits for the NHL, but no more so than the opponent who will invade. The Detroit Red Wings are not only a natural rival for Chicago, but also one of the league's premier clubs, with fans spread out to seemingly cover every NHL city.

Chicago, in particular, is jam-packed with Michigan exiles intent on cheering their team home. They will holler and Howe. Figure that Hawks fans will be ready for a Hull new ballgame at Wrigley Field too.

Stuart Shea will be covering the ice rink build at Wrigley Field for NHL.com. He is author of "Wrigley Field: The Unauthorized Biography" (Potomac Books) and worked a Major League Baseball contributor at Wrigley Field for a decade.