CHICAGO -- It's been home to the Chicago Bears for more than 40 years, hosted numerous historic events and remains one of the most iconic places in the Windy City.
Now, Soldier Field is set to host its first NHL game.
The Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins will face off there on March 1 in a regular-season game that will be part of the 2014 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series, which also includes two games at Yankee Stadium in New York and one at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. The NHL will also hold the 2014 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic on Jan. 1 in Ann Arbor, Mich., and the 2014 Tim Horton's NHL Heritage Classic in Vancouver on March 2.
More than 60,000 people are expected to attend the Penguins-Blackhawks, which will mark Chicago's second time hosting an outdoor contest. The Blackhawks played the Detroit Red Wings at Wrigley Field in the 2009 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic.
"The Blackhawks will have the privilege of being the first NHL team to host two of our outdoor games and we had such a good time at Wrigley, we figured we'd come back, we'd go to one of the other iconic venues that Chicago has to offer and we'd throw an even bigger party," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said Thursday at a press conference on the field. "We couldn't be more thrilled to be here and to continue with our outdoor celebrations."
It will be the third outdoor game for the Penguins, who are in town for a preseason game Thursday night at United Center. Pittsburgh also participated in the inaugural 2008 Winter Classic in Buffalo and hosted the 2011 Winter Classic at Heinz Field.
"We've been fortunate enough to play in two other outdoor games, one being back in Buffalo in the snow and one being in Pittsburgh in the rain," Penguins general manager Ray Shero said. "So we've played in the snow and the rain … we're 1-1 and we're looking to get above .500."
This time, players from both sides will be returning from playing for their countries in the 2014 Winter Olympics, which will be held in Sochi, Russia, in February. Having more than one outdoor game for the first time is designed to help the League keep fan interest through what's going to be a long season.
"We want to create a lot of momentum going into the Olympics and a lot of momentum coming out of the Olympics," NHL Chief Operating Officer John Collins said. "We thought a lot about these two teams, with all the players who are going to be a part of the Olympics and their storylines. Guys are going to be teammates and then opponents and then teammates again … that's kind of cool. And then, for the Blackhawks in Chicago, to get into Soldier Field is a cool thing."
Chicago defenseman Duncan Keith agreed. This will be his third outdoor game and second with the Blackhawks. Keith first played outdoors as a freshman at Michigan State, when he scored his first collegiate goal against archrival Michigan in a game billed as "The Cold War." The game was played at Spartan Stadium on Oct. 6, 2001, in front of a then-record 74,554 people.
As he surveyed his surroundings, Keith was already imagining what it will be like at Soldier Field in March. The Blackhawks, who held a practice at Soldier Field last winter on a rink set up for a college tournament, hoped they'd get a chance to play a game there some day.
"Now that it's happened and we're going to have a game here, as players we're all looking forward to this game," Keith said. "We don't want to get ahead of ourselves in any way, but it's hard not to look at a game like this and not think about how cool it's going to be."
Keith said he's attended Bears games and several concerts at Soldier Field. Following Thursday's press conference, he was shooting pucks between the uprights standing behind the north end zone.
"I think Wrigley Field was special," Keith said. "Everybody knows the history behind Wrigley Field, but being able to play a hockey game where the Bears play, in a stadium this big and this nice, is going to be a great feeling."
Concerns about the weather in Chicago during that time of year have been addressed with Dan Craig, the NHL's senior director of facilities operations (a.k.a. the ice guru). He's also charged with creating a clean sheet at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles for one part of the Stadium Series, so you have to figure Chicago near the turn of spring shouldn't be any harder.
"We've got a plan," Collins said. "We've been thinking about this for a while and we have a lot of experience now. We've figured out the weather. We've gone to Dan and said, 'All right, Dan, how are you going to make ice in L.A.?' and he had a plan. He said, 'Buy me some new equipment and we'll make ice during the night and we'll sleep during the day and we'll cover the ice during the day and we should be OK.' So, I think we've learned how to do it and it gets better every year."
After that, it's just a matter of finding the best venues. For this game, the NHL will be going from a ballpark in Chicago to an actual park. Soldier Field is owned and operated by the Chicago Park District and resides in a beautifully landscaped park near the shores of Lake Michigan. On Thursday it provided a perfect backdrop for the official introduction of this game, which will be a spectacle that shows how much the League and the sport of hockey have grown both in Chicago and worldwide.
"The game on the ice is as strong as it ever [has been] and we're looking to continue to find ways to connect with our fans that will energize our fan base and grow it," Commissioner Bettman said. "This game that we're here today talking about, the Coors Light Series and all the outdoor games, are one element of that. We have the Olympics and we have what we think will be an exciting and competitive season. We just want more of the same."