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Ceremonial touches, thrill fans, players alike

Thursday, 01.01.2009 / 6:33 PM / Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic 2009

By Bob Condor - NHL.com Editor-in-Chief

"I say let’s do here every year. Why not?  It would sell out every year. It was a blast."
-- Chris Chelios on the Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic 2009 at Wrigley Field

CHICAGO -- The best part of the Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic’s pregame festivities? Lots to pick from, including a jaw-rocking, torso-rousing national anthem complete with perfectly time pyrotechnics and a military jet flyover that surely thrilled all boys 12 and under in attendance (and no doubt thousands more). In fact, the pyro work was so good it actually muted the anthem yells — momentarily.

But the best moment had to be the partisan and primal screams for the two teams. The Red Wings jumped on the ice at 11:45 a.m., flying and cutting over the frozen surface that NHL ice guru Dan Craig has so devotedly built and cured since Dec. 15. There were lots of boos for the Wings, in fact, enough to think maybe it was the sound of a warmup maneuver for the scheduled flyover by a couple of F-18 Hornets.

Then Cristobal Huet and the Blackhawks climbed up from the Cubs' third-base dugout to a roar scratched just a smidge by Detroit heckling. A pure hockey moment and, in the end, exactly why 40,818 fans cheerfully filled up the stands at historic Wrigley Field. Well, maybe not all cheerfully. When the pregame moment came to coordinate a crowd card stunt, the Red Wings fans tossed their cards in the air — shades of Cubs bleachers faithful throwing back opponent home run balls.

Hockey fans buy and wear more team jerseys than other sports fan — OK, that’s unofficial — and there was no letup Thursday. Hawks jerseys appeared to outnumber Wings jersey by 5 to 3 —well, that’s even more unofficial — but the Detroit presence was predictably vocal and well-adorned with last year’s Stanley Cup title accomplishment. That’s a tally Hawks fans don’t care to acknowledge. Three Stanley Cups for Chicago, 11 now for Detroit.

NBC signed on to its 1 p.m. ET telecast with the melodious Bob Costas meshing hockey’s now traditional New Year’s Day game with the rickety-yet-magical, antiquity of Wrigley Field. Then NBC cut to on-ice interviews with Patrick Kane and Chris Chelios (who wished everyone Happy New Year, save maybe those Chicago players he planned to run over).

The teams walked to the ice together amid provided fog, torch flames and super-sized sparklers. The starting lineup for Detroit included three-time "Classic" goalie Ty Conklin, plus captain Nicklas Lidstrom and Chelios, the former Hawk still beloved here and still playing close as he nears his 50th birthday.

In the Wings’ dressing room after the game, Chelios said the once-in-a-lifetime event hadn’t yet fully registered: “But it will when I get across the street to Murphy’s [the famed Cubs tavern] to celebrate with my family. I’m guessing some Red Wings and Hawks fans will be there.”

Another cool pregame moment came amid winds gusting up to 30 mph: Chicago sports legends Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita, Denis Savard and Tony Esposito from the Hawks were joined on the ice by Cubs greats Fergie Jenkins (Canada’s premier all-time major league pitcher), Billy Williams and Ryne Sandberg. Hull and Detroit icon Ted Lindsay dropped the ceremonial puck before the puck dropped for real about 1:35 p.m.  Game time temperature was announced at 31.9 degrees F.

The Chicago legends all returned later in the Classic day for a version of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” from the press box booth where the late Harry Caray made it into tradition that brings a smile even to those skeptics in the attached main press box. Sandberg, who didn’t stop smiling the entire time he was in the booth (“Hey, this is great, just great”), was happy to be up front in the legendary chorus along with Jenkins (who voluntarily milled among Wrigley upper-deck fans between the second and third periods and said he still couldn’t believe he was watching hockey in Wrigley Field). Among the Hawks, Savard was front and center — just like his name on the scoring sheet from his playing days.

“Denis is the singer among us,” said Mikita, a cup of coffee in hand as the legends waited in a warming room that serves as the media lunchroom during Cubs games. “We need him to take the lead.”

The Chicago legends performed admirably. Fans lined up to leave the ballpark at day’s end agreed that they have heard worse, indeed, much worse from past celebrity singers.

For his part, Chelios said the whole day at the Wrigley “Wrink” was worth an encore and more.

“I say let’s do here every year. Why not?” said Chelios — speaking like the true hometown boy he is despite securing serious hardware with rival Detroit. “It would sell out every year. It was a blast.”