"It's not another game. Everybody is always trying to focus on the top team, and when you're the top team there's always a target on your back. I think this will bring up the best in both teams. There will be so much energy, there's not much chance these teams won't show up and play."
-- Scotty Bowman
Among that group of small children is William "Scotty" Bowman, excited as any of the others to step on the ice and into the imaginary skates of his favorite players, like the Canadiens' Maurice "Rocket" Richard.
That year, Richard scored 50 goals in 50 games skating on the famed "Punch Line" with Elmer Lach and Toe Blake. Who could have known that one of the young boys watching and idolizing Richard, Lach, Blake and the rest of the Canadiens would go on to one of the greatest coaching careers of the modern era?
Like thousands of boys and girls in 1944 -- and like thousands before and since -- a young Scotty Bowman learned the game by skating on ponds and outdoor rinks, fueled by hot chocolate and dreams of living out their fantasies in an old-time Canadian winter.
"When I was growing up there wasn't a lot of indoor rinks," Bowman said. "Until you got into your teen years, you didn't get on those indoor rinks because they were for junior or senior teams, so what I can remember about growing up in the suburb of Montreal was that, first, it was pretty cold. From early December to mid-March, you could count on a lot of winter. The parks had rinks and where I lived on almost every third corner the city put up a rink. So there were probably a dozen or more outdoor rinks for 30,000, 40,000 people or so. I lived pretty close to one of the rinks.
"So when I was very young, I put on my equipment in my house and I skated down to the rink -- I could skate on my street back then -- and stayed at the rink all day. Especially on the weekends, you got on the ice -- that's what you did. Sometimes it was really cold; you had a scarf and you had a shack where you could get warm, but still you stayed all day."
Fast-forward to Buffalo, Jan. 1, 2008 and the 2008 NHL Winter Classic. Again it was Scotty Bowman and an outdoor rink. But now, after a lifetime in hockey, he watches the game as a spectator and as a fan -- a fan with a Stanley Cup ring for each of his 10 fingers. The only thing the same, perhaps, is the layers of clothing needed to enjoy an outdoor hockey game.
"I was in Buffalo last year," Bowman said, "and it was a great event. Everything fell into place. It snowed a bit more maybe than they wanted, and it took a bit more work to keep the ice ready, but being the first time, I thought they did a terrific job. It was also maybe a bit cooler than they expected, but the players adjusted and it ended up being a real terrific game."
Fast-forward another year and again things have changed -- the location, the teams and Bowman's employer all are different. But what hasn't changed is the excitement and anticipation leading up to what quickly is becoming one of the NHL's premier events. The Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic 2009 will be played at Chicago's Wrigley Field on Jan. 1, 2009, when Bowman's new team, the Chicago Blackhawks, hosts his former employer, the Detroit Red Wings.
Bowman himself understands just how important the game is, not just to the fans, management, scouts and arena attendants, but to the players themselves. He knows the 2009 Winter Classic will forge a permanent memory, just like him skating down the street to join a childhood shinny game in the dead of winter.
"Some of the players, for them this will only be once in a lifetime," Bowman said. "It so happens that other guys will get another chance, but not very many. It's a special game and there is no question about it."
Add that to the fact that the Blackhawks entered this week just four points behind the defending Stanley Cup champions in the Central Division and you have a recipe for a magical afternoon in the Bowman household.
"It's not another game," Bowman said. "Everybody is always trying to focus on the top team, and when you're the top team there's always a target on your back. I think this will bring up the best in both teams. There will be so much energy, there's not much chance these teams won't show up and play."
Working with a fresh, exciting team, in the company of his son, Stan, Chicago's assistant general manager, and it's easy to see Bowman is in the perfect place for this stage of his career. Working with Stan has changed their relationship for the better.
"When you're on different teams, you talk, but you don't talk much hockey," said Bowman. "You don't want to take or give information about your teams, so it's not the same. Now, we get to share ideas."
The two now are sharing ideas on how to build one of the NHL's youngest, most exciting teams into one of the NHL's best teams.
For everyone connected with the game, it will be a special day. A fresh sheet of outdoor ice inspires excitement in people of all ages, from the greenest rookie to the most grizzled veteran, right to the most legendary coach -- especially one who happens to be experienced in the craft of ice-making.
"I've made a lot of outdoor rinks," Bowman said. "I actually made one in Chicago a couple weeks ago. My grandson is only 6, and they made an outdoor rink about two weeks ago and I was able to be there. You put boards around, you put plastic down and run the plastic up the boards. Now, when I left a couple days ago it had turned to mostly water and slush, but when it gets cold again, it will re-freeze.
"If you're going to make an outdoor rink you have to do it that way. The thicker the ice the better, because a couple days' thaw only thaws the top part and the bottom keeps ice."
Bowman's grandson, like his father and grandfather, is building his earliest hockey memories on the ice, and under a roofless sky.
"(The Blackhawks) had their Christmas party the other day," Bowman said. "My grandson went to the party, and they had ice from 11-12:30 for the families, so he skated almost the entire time. Then his own team practiced from 5-7, and he went back to his own rink at 8 and skated almost until bed. By the end of it, he was pretty bushed."
It's another young Bowman, living out his hockey fantasies on a sheet of outdoor ice.