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Slugger's expecting a Classic crowd

Tuesday, 12.30.2008 / 1:54 PM / Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic 2009

By Dan Rosen - NHL.com Senior Writer

"I think it's going to be like opening day for the Cubs or when the Bears were in the Super Bowl. I'm thinking there are going to be 75,000 people in the neighborhood and the park is only going to hold 45,000, so where are the other people going to go? They are going to want to watch the hockey game somewhere and bowl games somewhere."
-- Zach Strauss

CHICAGO -- The couches were facing each other and a pool table was taking up some space near the wall, sending off a cozy, basement-type feel in the back room of Slugger's World Class Sports Bar on North Clark Street.

Come Thursday, the famous bar will have a completely different atmosphere.

"It's going to be jamming," Zach Strauss, 32, whose father opened Slugger's in 1984, told NHL.com. "You won't recognize this place. There won't be a pool table over there and the couches over there."

There won't be room.

Slugger's, one of the Original Three bars in Wrigleyville along with Murphy's Bleachers (formerly Ray's Bleachers) and the Cubby Bear, should be wall-to-wall jammed with hockey fans looking for some breakfast to go along with their Old Style beer by 9 o'clock Thursday morning, roughly three hours before the puck drops at the Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic (1 p.m. ET, NBC, CBC, RDS, NHL Radio, XM Radio).

Strauss said he wouldn't be surprised if 75,000 people were in the neighborhood Thursday morning, even though the ballpark will only hold slightly over half of that.

"I think it's going to be like opening day for the Cubs or when the Bears were in the Super Bowl," he said. "I'm thinking there are going to be 75,000 people in the neighborhood and the park is only going to hold 45,000, so where are the other people going to go? They are going to want to watch the hockey game somewhere and bowl games somewhere.

"We're usually busy around this neighborhood on Jan. 1 because there are all the bowl games on. It's enough to maybe fill half this bar, but at 9 o'clock I have two corporate events and there is also going to be, hungover or not, hockey fans out here."

Strauss said when the Bears were in the Super Bowl on Feb. 4, 2007 the bar filled up by 10 a.m. and people didn't leave until midnight, after the Indianapolis Colts finished off a 29-17 victory.

He doesn't expect the party to go that late, but 9 o'clock wouldn't be a stretch.

"Everyone will be pooped out because of New Year's Eve being the night before and the game is at noon," Strauss said. "After Cubs games we're jamming for like three hours, but during a Cubs game we're only busy before the game and after the game. During the game we usually empty out because the people go to the game. If there are 30,000 people around with nowhere to go, all these bars are going to be full.

"They'll try to scalp tickets and when they can't get into the game they'll give up and say, 'Let's just go to the bars,' " he continued. "The game will let out and the people in the bars may leave and hopefully they do because we'll get that fresh blood in from the ballpark to rotate the crowd a little. If the people in the bar decide to stay for the post-game events we're not going to be able to let that fresh blood in."

Not all of Slugger's' 50 televisions in the bar will have the hockey game on as some people may be interested in the three bowl games that will be played simultaneously, "but the sound will be on the hockey game and we'll have a DJ with music and people dancing it up during commercials.

"To be honest, I don't know what this crowd is going to be," he added. "I know Cubs' crowds very well and I know what our clientele is, but I don't know what to expect. This is a national event. We're going to get tourists from all over the country that have been die-hard hockey fans their entire lives."

Strauss said his staff started getting pumped for the Winter Classic back in July when the NHL first announced that the game was coming to Wrigley Field.

The Slugger's staff drags during the baseball season when the days get long during Cubs' homestands, but come January or February they usually pine for an opening-day atmosphere to get back into the swing of things.

"Now we're getting it," Strauss said. "It's fantastic."

Especially for business.

"When we heard about this Blackhawks' thing at Wrigley Field we were like, 'Oh, what a bonus,' " Strauss said. "Then the economy (got bad), and even though how wonderful our location is in Wrigleyville, you still feel it. During the week there is nothing going on. Because this is a destination bar area for the city, the weekends are still good. Now, though, it's not just a bonus anymore. All of us need it for business."

Strauss wouldn't get into the numbers of how much the bar rakes in during the 81 Cubs home dates compared to non-gamedays or the offseason, but he did say they can charge more on Thursday "because we're going to have a captured audience."

"Part of going to Wrigley Field is hitting these neighborhood taverns afterward," Strauss added. "People make a day of it. It's not a three hour thing where you drive down, park, go to the game and leave. This experience is totally unique."

Contact Dan Rosen at drosen@nhl.com.