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Hockey adds a chapter to Wrigley history

Sunday, 12.28.2008 / 8:03 PM / Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic 2009

By Dan Rosen - NHL.com Senior Writer

CHICAGO -- Blackhawks President John McDonough wasn't acting. No, he was actually shocked, in sort of a state of disbelief as he led a group of people, including The Hockey Show's film crew and host Carrie Milbank, onto Wrigley Field's hallowed turf.

"Jay, are we really here, are we really at Wrigley Field?" McDonough said as he turned around to look at Blackhawks Senior V.P. of Business Operations Jay Blunk, who was also McDonough's long-time colleague when they worked for the Chicago Cubs in this very ballpark. "Is this really happening? This is a dream."

McDonough's words weren't rehearsed. They were straight from the heart. For 24 years, he called Wrigley Field his office. He was back Sunday, leading an on-camera tour of one of his favorite places in the world.

The tour started in the media workroom underneath the stands down the first-base line. That's where the group, including McDonough, Milbank, Blunk, Blackhawks media relations coordinator Adam Rogowin, two members of the NHL's public relations department and the crew, led by producer Tom O'Grady, convened.

McDonough's first stop on the tour was outside the ballpark, across Clark Street in front of the McDonald's parking lot. It's the perfect spot to get a brilliant view of Wrigley Field's famous marquee, which was glistening in the afternoon sun.

"The marquee is not only the face of Wrigley Field, but in a way it's the face of baseball," McDonough said. "When you walk past that marquee, you are walking past history."

McDonough got romantic about the neighborhood surrounding the ballpark, better known as Wrigleyville. He said it was a great area for young kids and it's "really the Mecca of the city, right here." This, by the way, was coming from someone who grew up rooting for the White Sox.

While still standing across Clark Street, the marquee shining in the background, McDonough talked about one of the most memorable nights he ever had in his 24 years working for the Cubs.

"Aug. 8, 1988," he said. "The marquee read, 'Welcome to Opening Night.'"

It wasn't lying. The Cubs' scheduled game that night against the Philadelphia Phillies was the first night game ever at Wrigley Field. Prior to that night, the Cubs played all afternoon games because there were no lights installed at the ballpark. But at 6:06 p.m. CT, 91-year old Harry Grossman, a Cubs fan since 1905, flipped the switch, illuminating the stadium for the Cubs' first home night game in team history.

Rain washed out the game after 3 1/2 innings and Aug. 9, 1988 became the first official night game at Wrigley Field. The Cubs beat the New York Mets, 6-4.

"You knew there was only going to be one opening night at Wrigley Field," McDonough said, "and this may be the only Winter Classic at Wrigley Field."

As Milbank and McDonough walked back into the ballpark, a family of four was taking photos just below the marquee. Once inside the stadium, McDonough brought Milbank from the lower concourse level up 10 steps and into section 116. Milbank had mentioned that this was her first time in Wrigley Field, so McDonough hammed it up for her and the camera.

"You are about to see one of the most beautiful sites in the world," McDonough said as he escorted the host up the steps.

McDonough and Milbank sat in seats behind home plate. It gave them a perfect view of the entire ballpark, including the rooftop seats located on top of the buildings across both Waveland and Sheffield Avenues.

McDonough said the rooftops came in during the 1980s and he has seen everything from weddings and regular evening parties going on up there during Cubs' games.

"It's really something remarkable," he said.

Milbank asked McDonough to give an explanation about the famous chanting that goes on between patrons in the bleachers in both right field and left field during Cubs games.

"There is a chant similar to what I have heard in Boston about what they say about the Yankees or (with Blackhawks' fans) and what they say about Detroit," McDonough said. "That's what the left-field bleachers say to the right-field bleachers and vice versa. I'll let you use your imagination."

While staring at the famous scoreboard above the center-field bleachers, McDonough commented on its history. The hand-operated scoreboard was built in 1937.

"We're on the verge of something grand.  Maybe this is how they felt when Michael Jordan was in his rookie or second year. It's an exciting time to be here." -- Jay Blunk, Blackhawks Seinor VP of Business Operations






"Many times they put up the wrong score or put numbers upside down," McDonough said.

From the backstop, McDonough led the tour down onto the field, rinkside between the two benches. Milbank stood between both McDonough and Blunk as McDonough talked about how Wrigley Field got nicknamed "The Friendly Confines."

"The name came from Ernie Banks because he wanted to put a moniker on this place," McDonough said, referring to arguably the most famous Cubs player in history. "Everybody here is so friendly. The ushers are so friendly. The people around the ballpark are so friendly. It's like baseball's version of Mayberry. So, one time Ernie Banks referred to it as 'The Friendly Confines.' It really is an appropriate name."

Blunk said seeing the rink on the field made him think of Bill Veeck, the former owner of the Chicago White Sox who was known for his wild publicity stunts and incredible innovativeness that is still felt around the baseball world today.

"How proud would he be today to see a hockey rink in Wrigley Field?" Blunk asked rhetorically.

Blunk said the Winter Classic may be the biggest regular season game in Blackhawks history and "statistically speaking it will be the biggest attended event ever."

"We're on the verge of something grand," Blunk later added. "Maybe this is how they felt when Michael Jordan was in his rookie or second year. It's an exciting time to be here."

Once the tour was over, a giddy Blunk and McDonough stood rink side with Milbank in the middle and took some still photographs that they planned to save for their own photo albums of this major event.

"This is magical," McDonough said.   

Contact Dan Rosen at drosen@nhl.com