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Hockey dreams take center stage at Winter Classic

Wednesday, 12.31.2008 / 7:36 PM / Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic 2009

By Larry Wigge - NHL.com Columnist

CHICAGO -- For some members of the Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings, the Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic 2009 is truly their "Field of Dreams."

It's their biggest stage, the culmination of dreams entertained during the fancy-free days of childhood, nurtured through bitterly cold days on frozen ponds.

"It's like when you were a little kid on the pond and you are acting like you are Bobby Orr or Steve Yzerman playing a Stanley Cup game," Chicago's James Wisniewski said after Wednesday's practice session.

That is the magic of playing this game outdoors, be it in Wrigley Field, Buffalo's Ralph Wilson Stadium or Edmonton's Commonwealth Stadium. It captures the essence of why the players play the game and tell us about whom they are and from where they come.

This game is a natural for Red Wings defenseman Chris Chelios, who grew up in Chicago and started playing hockey here.

It was in Chicago, where Gus Chelios, Chris' father, met his wife, Susan, at a Sears store there.

"And that's where my mom bought my first pair of skates," Chelios said, starting to laugh. "She bought them for $5 at Ace Hardware."

From that humble beginning Chelios forged a path to the NHL, starring for both the Hawks and Wings. Yet, Chelios says he will never forget his roots -- playing for the first time outdoors at Lake Meadows, a southern suburb of Chicago, or making his first pilgrimage to Wrigley Field as a wide-eyed boy.

"I was there with my dad and uncle," he said. "We sat way up there in the upper deck. It was the 1970s and Billy Williams and Glenn Beckett were the guys who had a big day for the Cubs."

It gets even better when you consider that the Chelios clan moved to Poway, Calif., where Gus wanted to try some new restaurant ideas in San Diego. It was there that Chris became a rink rat, riding his bicycle to any rink where he could find ice time. That dedication led to a scholarship offer from U.S. International, although, at 5-foot-5, 160 pounds, he was deemed by the coaching staff as too small to make the team.

"Not bad for a guy who was the son of a Greek immigrant living in Chicago and then moved to San Diego. The odds were a million-to-one that I would ever play hockey," Chelios said. "I played a little high school hockey in Chicago, but I was really a bigger fan of the Bears and Dick Butkus. When we moved to California, I remember being on the beach in LaJolla, hoping to get a tryout for the U.S. International University team. On the beach! Can you imagine that?"

When I told him the kind of story I was doing, he added, "It truly is a Field of Dreams story for me."

But he has plenty of company in that regard.

Humble beginnings -- Blackhawks right winger Dustin Byfuglien didn't begin his hockey career on some backyard rink or pond in Canada. Instead, it began more modestly, at the door of a trailer on a 10-acre trucking farm behind his grandparents' house five miles outside of Roseau, Minn. There, hard off Route 11, Dustin grew up as the son of a single mother who drove a forklift at the local snowmobile plant.

Cheryl Byfuglien would leave for work about 5:30 each morning, dropping Dustin off at the rink on her way to work. Often, he'd be sitting on the steps in the dark and bitter cold for more than a half-hour waiting for the coach for a 6:30 a.m. practice.

So, was that cold back in Roseau more bitter than the 16-degree temperatures that greeted the Blackhawks when they took the ice for practice Wednesday morning

"Not even close," smiled "Big Buff." "Sometimes it was 20-30 below. Now that was cold, especially when you have to wait half hour or longer on those cold steps."

Work to play -- The dream for Detroit's Marian Hossa began in Trencin, Slovakia.

"I grew up in an old apartment building across the street from a lot where we played hockey," Hossa said. "We had so many kids there that wanted to play; you had to earn your way into the game. In this case, it was help build the boards or work on the ice. We had to have some of the dads help get the water across the street, so we could have ice and my dad (Frantisek) did his part. "Whoever helped got to play."

Then Hossa added, "That's the last time I played outdoors."

Until today.

Remembering Mom -- Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith grew up in Fort Frances, Ont., just across the border from International Falls, Minn., which for years has been the coldest city in the United States.

Dave, Duncan's dad, was a bank manager and Jean, his mom, was a nurse at a nursing home. Keith was one of those typical Canadian kids -- he and his friends played hockey from morning until night.

When they had to go somewhere, Jean was usually the driver. Funny, but Mrs. Keith is from England. "She played field hockey, but she knew how important hockey was to me and my friends.

Duncan shook his head when told about the Field of Dreams theme. Then, he continued with his story. "I wouldn't be here if it were not for mom. I remember I was this small kid and sometimes when I'd get hit hard and go down to the ice, I'd start crying. But my mom was there screaming at me. She told me to get up and play like my friends."

Skates well enough -- For Detroit's infuriating, crease-crashing Tomas Holmstrom, home is Pitea, Sweden.

"I grew up skating, (starting) when I was about three," he recalled. "My dad built a hockey rink for us across the street."

Despite that, scouts always knocked Holmstrom for his skating ability. It is the main reason why he was chosen after 256 other players in the 1994 Entry Draft.

"The scouts always said I couldn't skate well enough."

When asked how that could happen when his dad, Henrik, who knows something about ice since he works for the Pitea Sports Arena. Tomas laughed and said, "That's amazing, isn't it?"

Parental sacrifice -- I walked up to Blackhawks forward Patrick Sharp in the locker room and he asked how cold I was. I said, "I could sure use a warm coffee and some donuts."

Sharp quipped, "Nothing's better than Robin's Doughnut Shop."

Robin's, which was founded in part by Sharp's parents, started out with one store in 1975. Now there are more than 400 shops throughout Canada and the United States.

 
 


Thunder Bay, another cold Canadian city, was the origin of Sharp's hockey evolution and Robin's Doughnuts plays a big part in the story.

"Mom worked at the shop until my older brother, Chris, and I were born and then she became a hockey mom to the greatest degree," Sharp explained. "She was always there for us and our hockey. The revenues from the business my parents ran helped put me through hockey."

Happy homecoming -- Red Wings defenseman Brian Rafalski recalls his first competitive playoff series as a kid in 1991.

"I was playing in a game in St. Paul and some guy on the other team kept bumping into our goalie," Rafalski said. "I went after the guy. I'll never forget it, because I was thrown out of the game and spent the last two periods watching in the stands with my dad."

When Rafalski left New Jersey after winning two Stanley Cups there, he remembered the day he signed with Detroit.

"It only took a couple of hours to get a deal done after we touched bases with the Wings," Rafalski said. "Then there was one call I had to make, to tell my dad I had just signed with the Wings. I'll never forget hearing my stepmother screaming excitedly in the background when I called. But the best part of that call was hearing my dad's voice and how thrilled he was to hear that I was coming home to play for the team we watched together when I was just a boy."

Harry Rafalski's voice is a huge part of Brian's hockey memories and dreams. Wednesday, it surely resonated again in Brian's head as he enjoyed his time on the "Field of Dreams."