Come back with us to New Year's Day 2008, when the Blackhawks were just starting to feel like a breath of fresh air.
Rocky Wirtz was new in his role as Chairman of a troubled family heirloom, requiring a complete teardown he commissioned John McDonough to produce and direct. At home on that holiday, less than two months into his role as franchise President, McDonough watched the first Winter Classic featuring the Pittsburgh Penguins and Buffalo Sabres at Ralph Wilson Stadium, home of the NFL's Bills.
McDonough, after a decorated career with the Chicago Cubs, was new to hockey, but not new to new. As snowflakes danced across his TV screen and Sidney Crosby scored in the shootout to provide the visitors a 2-1 victory before 71,217 fans, McDonough was enthralled. Why, he wondered, don't we get one of those?
McDonough broached the concept to National Hockey League Commissioner Gary Bettman, who noted that the idea did not float unattended. McDonough, quipped Bettman, was politely persistent. Phone calls brought traction, then action. On New Year's Day 2009, the Blackhawks hosted the defending Stanley Cup champions and Marian Hossa at Wrigley Field. The Detroit Red Wings won 6-4, with 40,818 in attendance on a crisp afternoon.
"We lost," recalled captain Jonathan Toews, "but it was the rebirth of the Blackhawks."
It is a rebirth to be continued on New Year's Day 2019, when McDonough -- now President and CEO -- and the Blackhawks will welcome the Boston Bruins to Notre Dame Stadium, legendary lair of football's Fighting Irish. In this last decade, the Blackhawks not only have made history. They skate in it.
The Winter Classic at Wrigley Field, 2009. The Stadium Series at Soldier Field, 2014. The Winter Classic at Notre Dame Stadium, 2019. Iconic venues, all.
"I think it will be spectacular, right up there with Wrigley Field," said Stan Bowman, the Blackhawks' Senior Vice President/General Manager who graduated from Notre Dame in 1995 with degrees in finance and computer applications. "Before the first Winter Classic in Buffalo, a lot of people wondered. New Year's Day pretty much belonged to college football and bowl games. Would an outdoor hockey game work? Well, it worked. It certainly worked at Wrigley Field.
"It was a big, big deal, to host one of those. We were just beginning to see some hope then as a team. The star of the show was Wrigley Field. You asked yourself, 'What could be unique after that?' Soldier Field was huge, and Notre Dame, all the tradition on that campus. I loved my time there. Playing a hockey game there will be tremendous. All the outdoor experiences are nice, but hosting one as we will for the third time is really special."
Wrigley Field represented a paradigm shift for the Blackhawks, but, as Stanley Cup championships in 2010, 2013 and 2015 would attest, hardly an apotheosis. Like Bowman mentioned, in 2009 the Blackhawks were not the international brand they are now. They had qualified for the playoffs just once since 1997, a cameo appearance lasting but five games in 2002 before they bowed out to the St. Louis Blues.
Convincing a diminished fan base to venture outside seemed a stretch too, inasmuch as the Blackhawks were desperate to bring people in from the cold and into the United Center. In the final three games of the 2007-08 regular season the building was full, thus jump-starting an amazing sellout streak that now stands at 426. But in Wirtz's first home game as Chairman, the Blackhawks drew just 9,717. When McDonough saw his first home game as President, the attendance was 11,122.
The Blackhawks fell 3-2 to the Washington Capitals in the 2015 Winter Classic at Nationals Park, and 4-1 to the St. Louis Blues in the 2017 Winter Classic at Busch Stadium. In a February 2016 Stadium Series encounter at TCF Bank Stadium, the Minnesota Wild strafed the Blackhawks 6-1. Normally, the sky's the limit for the Blackhawks, yet their only triumph in the elements was that 5-1 Stadium Series rout of Pittsburgh at Soldier Field, where they navigated a serious wintry mix with elan. That conquest with Mother Nature as referee occurred at night, with 62,921 braving a polar vortex. But in the dark, did the Blackhawks imagine they were still performing before their adoring fans at the chummy and enclosed United Center?
We also once opined that the Blackhawks wear a 1-4-0 burden outdoors because open air rink surfaces are "pebbled," as in curling, thus adversely affecting their up-tempo style, puck movement and tape-to-tape passing. But conditions for the Blackhawks' lone victory in Soldier Field were the worst of any, so that shoots our premise. And so does Bowman.
"No, I don't buy your curling theory," he said.
By popular demand, no NHL team has participated in more outdoor ventures than the Blackhawks, just another example of their renaissance. Take it from Al Secord, a popular and productive player who took "One More Shift" at the United Center last Sunday. When Secord starred here during the 1980s, the Blackhawks were on the verge. But something was missing. Commitment?
"This organization now is so much more progressive and modern," Secord noted. "They've won three Cups, want to win more and do whatever they have to do to achieve their goal. They have great players and really smart people upstairs. I don't recall ever hearing that our only objective was the Stanley Cup. It's so different now than what I remember."