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Fans arrive early to be part of Winter Classic

Thursday, 01.01.2009 / 1:52 PM / Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic 2009

By Mike G. Morreale - NHL.com Staff Writer

CHICAGO -- Augie Gizzi and his son, Tony, left their home in South Suburban Orland Park, Ill., in the early morning hours Thursday to make certain they were able to soak in all the pomp and circumstance at Wrigley Field for the Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic.

"We left Orland Park at 5 a.m. and got here in about four hours," Augie told NHL.com. "We didn't want to miss this for the world. When I first heard about this game, I said to my son, we have to get there. I've been a Chicago fan all my life and am looking forward to this so much."

Fans of all ages and allegiances flocked to the old baseball field -- famous for its brick ivy walls and baseball heroes. Thursday, however, it was all hockey.

"I've been a Wings fan for 52 years and grew up watching Gordie Howe and Steve Yzerman," said 52-year-old Greg Mayhew of Wyandotte, Mich.

"What a great event this is to have two Original Six teams doing battle in an historic stadium," Mayhew said. "It's going to be a great day. This is a really great thing that the NHL is doing for its fans. I certainly hope they continue doing this throughout the States."

The Red Wings actually added to the excitement by entering the concourse area of the stadium to play a little pregame soccer. There was Henrik Zetterberg, Dan Cleary and Niklas Kronwall, along with a few other team members, kicking and heading the ball within a circle to the delight of the fans who cheered them on.

There were not only Chicago and Detroit fans in the stands either. Wally Bele of Pittsburgh joined his brother-in-law, Michael Ruskin of Florida. Ruskin, previously of Detroit, intended to accompany his wife to the game, but when she was unable to attend, he found a volunteer to take her place.

"We've been walking around downtown all morning and the people are so friendly," Ruskin said. "This is a chance for the NHL to shine in its premier event of the regular season."

Bele didn't have a chance to attend last year's Winter Classic when the Penguins defeated the Sabres in Orchard Park, N.Y., so he was certainly grateful when Ruskin contacted him.

"It was unbelievable watching that game on television last season," Bele said. "If you weren't a hockey fan before that game, you certainly are now. I think the ice will be a lot better today than in Buffalo. This will be great. I hope it snows like it did last year. The ice and the field look awesome.

"I'll be rooting for the Wings today since my brother-in-law did offer me the tickets, but I'm not rooting for Marian Hossa. I still can't believe he told management he would come back and, instead, left for Detroit. And then, on top of that, Detroit signs our former backup goalie, Ty Conklin. What the heck is going on with that?''

"Stop your crying," said Ruskin while nudging his older brother-in-law.

Joe Mayhew, Greg's 23-year-old son, had plenty to at the fan-friendly events in and around Wrigleyville.

"We were out here yesterday and I tried my hand at the Verizon shooting experience on Chris Osgood, my favorite goalie," Joe said. "I had to try and score on my favorite goalie. But this experience, the whole atmosphere, is just great. It's without a doubt a once in a lifetime experience and we couldn't miss it.

"I played so much hockey back home on the frozen Detroit river, so to see an NHL game played in the same type of elements is really cool."

As big an Osgood fan as Joe Mayhew is, he has been impressed with the way backup goalie Ty Conklin has worked so well in relief.

"He's been great and to have two goalies like that is a wonderful thing," Mayhew said. "Heading into the playoffs, having that experience, is going to be great."

The younger Mayhew doesn't believe the hometown Blackhawks will have a home field advantage.

"I really don't think there are more Chicago fans out here," he said. "We've been out here two days now and we've seen a lot of Detroit fans and lot of support for the Wings. There were even Chicago natives saying to us, 'Yeah, go Detroit' so there are a lot of Wings fan despite the fact the game is here in Chicago."

Tony Gizzi, Augie's 12-year-old son who donned an autographed Martin Havlat jersey, was also a big fan of the shootout event located in Wrigleyville.

"It was pretty cool because I felt like a real player," he said. "I had a stick and actually shot a puck. I think I did pretty good too. I hope they have more games like this."

Contact Mike Morreale at mmorreale@nhl.com.