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The Verdict: Blackhawks get into the Winter Classic spirit on New Year's Eve

by Bob Verdi / Chicago Blackhawks
The Blackhawks scrimmaged with USA Warriors after their New Year's Eve practice at Nationals Park. (Getty Images)

WASHINGTON—As Kris Versteeg was saying, against a backdrop of the great outdoors, the net looks smaller than ever to a shooter. Not that he has suffered, being the only member of the Blackhawks to score a goal at both Wrigley Field and Soldier Field.

Come Thursday, Versteeg will go for the woolen hat trick in the National Hockey League Winter Classic against the Washington Capitals at Nationals Park. Puck drop is scheduled for shortly after 1 p.m. local time, barring the slight chance of too much sun, a ball of fire that has been a rumor in Chicago lately.

“We had a delay in Yankee Stadium last year,” said Brad Richards, a former New York Ranger who has played in three of these fresh-air spectaculars. “Too much glare. Our goalie, Henrik Lundqvist, couldn’t see anything.”

As the Blackhawks emerged from the third-base dugout for Wednesday’s practice, virtually the entire rink under a blue sky was in the shade. But that was at 2:30, p.m. not that anybody on either side seemed worried. The men of winter, feeling again like boys, will wait a little while if necessary to see their breath.

“To score in both of our outdoor games,you have to be lucky enough to be with a franchise that’s involved in two outdoor games,” Versteeg reasoned. “And I’ve been lucky. Between those first and second goals, I played with three other teams before I was lucky enough to come back to this one.”

John McDonough, the Blackhawks’ President & CEO, started all this. Two months into his new job after a decorated baseball career, McDonough watched the 2008 New Year’s Day snowball fight in Orchard Park, N.Y., between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Buffalo Sabres. He was mesmerized. Soon, he learned of NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman’s hotline. Having watched the Cubs bullpen for a quarter-century, McDonough knew what it meant to make pitch after pitch.

“We can grovel with the best of them,” confessed McDonough, who snagged the next Winter Classic for Wrigley Field. The Blackhawks lost to the defending Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings, but Jonathan Toews tagged it as a “rebirth” of the franchise. The Blackhawks wanted to be the Red Wings in 2009. Now, the Blackhawks are quite content to be the Blackhawks.

Like all major markets, Washington has experienced its sports triumphs and traumas. If Chicago claims two losing baseball teams, Washington twice actually lost baseball teams, to Minnesota and Texas. When baseball was here, the chant went: “Washington, first in war, first in peace, last in the American League.”

Michael Jordan finished playing here, after twin three-peats with the Bulls. Before that, the Washington Generals were internationally famous foils for the Harlem Globetrotters. When the Generals won by mistake one evening in 1971, they ended a losing streak of 2,495 games.

The Bears destroyed the Redskins, 73-0, in the 1940 NFL Championship here. But twice, after Chicago’s Super Bowl XX frolic, the Redskins came to Soldier Field and shocked the Bears out of the playoffs.

The Capitals, born to expansion in 1974 along with the Kansas City Scouts, found that talent was in short supply. During their opening season, the Capitals won eight, lost 67 17 of them in a row and tied 5. Their first conquest was over the Blackhawks. When the Capitals won their only road game in 40 tries, they passed a garbage can around as a surrogate Stanley Cup.

After Wednesday’s brief drills and before family and friends took to a nice ice surface, real heroes appeared for a “scrimmage” with the Blackhawks: 20 members of USA Warriors Ice Hockey, men whose service to country wounded their bodies, but not their spirit.

Both sides skated shorthanded, however. Clint Reif, the Blackhawks’ beloved assistant equipment manager, is gone.

“This jacket I’m wearing is because of Clint,” said Charlie Hymen, the group’s president. “We skated with the Hawks a couple years ago, and he saw our gear. Old, worn-out. Clint did something about that. When we showed up at Soldier Field last winter, [we had] all new stuff for our guys in our room.”

As the fun ended, Hymen looked through the glass.

“This is the coolest part,” he said. “The Blackhawks already practiced, it’s New Year’s Eve, they have a game tomorrow. But look at them. They’re not leaving to take a shower and get warm. They’re hanging out with our guys. Several NHL teams have supported us, but no team cares more than the Blackhawks care.”

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