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The Verdict: Blackhawks have taken a quantum leap since last outdoor experience

by Bob Verdi / Chicago Blackhawks
The NHL's ice crew sets the stage for the Stadium Series game at Soldier Field (Chase Agnello-Dean / Chicago Blackhawks).

Inasmuch as the Bears once played where the Blackhawks played, it is only sporting that the Blackhawks again skate into a lair of the Bears.

This rare wintry mix shall deliver a frigid home-and-home-and-home sequel Saturday night when the defending Stanley Cup champions engage the Pittsburgh Penguins and 60,000 or so fans for a Stadium Series match at Soldier Field, current address for the Monsters of the Midway.

On New Year’s Day, 2009, the Detroit Red Wings met the Blackhawks at Wrigley Field. It was a happening for all involved, and it helped provide traction to the Winter Classic series that has become a staple of the National Hockey League schedule. Outdoor games this season have flourished at Yankee Stadium, Dodger Stadium and Michigan Stadium.

Long ago, the Bears went in the opposite direction to settle a National Football League championship. In 1932, they and the Portsmouth (Ohio) Spartans finished in a tie atop what was then an eight-team NFL, a first for a league that had not required or sanctioned a playoff of any sort.

So, it was decided that the Spartans would visit the Bears for a postseason tie-breaker at Wrigley Field on Dec. 18. Problem: Chicago was in the throes of a brutal winter—sound familiar? League officials opted to seek shelter in Chicago Stadium, where a makeshift dirt field extended only 80 yards in length, 10 yards narrower than regulation.

Front-row seats hovered about the sidelines, all plays began between the hash marks, and whenever an offense crossed midfield, the ball was returned to the 20-yard line. The Bears prevailed 9-0, keyed by a touchdown pass from Red Grange to Bronko Nagurski. The Bears added a safety for insurance before a gathering of 11,198.

Saturday night, there will be plenty of room for two elite NHL teams to maneuver for a national television audience. Ghosts of Grange and Nagurski will be replaced by Jonathan Toews and Sidney Crosby, plus an assemblage of other stars from the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, where 10 Blackhawks participated.

Pressure was intense there. As Duncan Keith told the Wall Street Journal, “Make one mistake and you are a goat for the rest of your life.” But there is a physical toll too.

How these world-class world travelers will deal with a return to their workplace is debatable, although the Blackhawks found a cure for the Olympic “hangover” in 2010. Six of them departed Vancouver—Toews, Keith and Brent Seabrook with gold medals, Patrick Kane with silver—didn’t miss a beat, then won a Stanley Cup.

Before that, the Red Wings were in a similar circumstance, and produced similar results. Laden with gifted players, Detroit won a Stanley Cup in 1998, when the NHL first joined the Olympic movement, and again in 2002. On both occasions, they were coached by Scotty Bowman, a Hall of Famer who is now Senior Advisor to Hockey Operations for the Blackhawks.

“Japan the first time, then Salt Lake in 2002,” Bowman recalled. “We sent a bunch of guys to both. I don’t remember how many, but a bunch. Our guys just came back healthy from Russia, so you have to monitor their minutes, which Joel (Head Coach Quenneviile) always does well, anyway.

“And if you look at those minutes, guys like Toews and Keith played less there than they do here sometimes. There wasn’t much hitting there, either. And let’s face it, players travel now in these beautiful charter planes. I don’t think it will be a problem.”

At Wrigley Field in 2009, Detroit was defending yet another Stanley Cup, while the Blackhawks were just beginning to emerge from the doldrums. Upwardly mobile, newly enlightened, but not quite there. They wanted to be the Red Wings, on the ice and in the executive branch, but it would take time.

Seabrook knocked Daniel Cleary into the Chicago bench, and the Blackhawks started well, but the Red Wings won 6-4. A year later, the Blackhawks won their first Stanley Cup since 1961, and last spring, Seabrook scored the overtime clincher in Game 7 against Detroit as the Blackhawks took another quantum leap toward a second Stanley Cup in four years.

If you’re into symmetry, you could say that the Blackhawks, within the time frame of these outdoor fetes, have come in from the cold and emulated the Red Wings model as a destination franchise—annually successful, widely admired.

Symbolism also existed in 1932. The Spartans argued vehemently that Nagurski’s pass was not thrown from at least 5 yards behind the line of scrimmage, as mandated, and therefore violated the rules. There was no video review, the play stood, and an angry rivalry formed.

In 1934, the Portsmouth Spartans moved to Detroit and became the Lions.

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