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Wrigley's Winter Classic was a once-in-a-lifetime experience

by Bob Verdi / Chicago Blackhawks
Photo by Jonathan Daniel / Getty Images Sport

Those aerial shots of Wrigley Field’s frozen tundra are spectacular, but they’re only part of the sensory smorgasbord available during a truly unique “Chicago Blackhawks Classic” Tuesday at 7 p.m. on Comcast SportsNet. Under any circumstances, a game against the Detroit Red Wings is special. But under no roof whatsoever, sights and sounds are enhanced.

“Coolest event I’ve ever been part of,” said Joel Quenneville, who coached the Blackhawks in the National Hockey League’s Winter Classic on New Year’s Day, 2009. He went hatless behind the bench for three periods, but he’ll be a lot warmer on the studio panel with host Pat Boyle and Eddie Olczyk, Chicago’s own favorite analyst who assumed his usual role with NBC for a huge national television audience of 4.4 million viewers—to that point, the highest rating throughout the United States for any hockey telecast in 33 years.

Early on that Thursday morning, the buzz throughout the city was palpable, particularly around the Wrigley Field neighborhood. It could have been about the Cubs in July, except thousands of fans were bundled up for a once-in-a-lifetime experience widely portrayed as a coming out party for the born-again Blackhawks franchise.

To usher in 2008, the Pittsburgh Penguins visited Ralph Wilson Stadium, home of the National Football League's Bills, to play the Buffalo Sabres. A crowd of 71,217 witnessed what was an instant success, and one especially interested observer was John McDonough, who watched the telecast from his home in the Chicago suburbs. Less than two months after becoming president of the Blackhawks, McDonough, now President/CEO, was taken by the spectacle. He placed a call to Jay Blunk, a fellow executive with the Cubs who was about to join the Blackhawks. McDonough basically told Blunk, now executive vice president, “Jay, we’ve got to get one of these.”

During the course of Tuesday night’s telecast, you will relive how it happened. Most NHL insiders expected the second Winter Classic would be awarded to New York as the final game in the old Yankee Stadium. But McDonough had a better idea, and listen between periods when he relates how NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman reacted to the proposal for outdoor hockey at iconic Wrigley Field.

The Red Wings were defending Stanley Cup champions—supremely talented, annually consistent, organizationally sound. The Blackhawks, absent from the playoffs since 2002, had posted a winning record the previous season and were reviving. They clearly were upward bound, intent of becoming what the Red Wings were. The 2009 Winter Classic was another step in that process, but a 6-4 defeat to Detroit served as another reminder that the Blackhawks had many miles to skate before they could exhale.

  • Former stars from the Blackhawks, Red Wings and Cubs gathered at center ice for a pregame ceremony: Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita, Tony Esposito, Denis Savard, Ted Lindsay, Ryne Sandberg, Billy Williams and Ferguson Jenkins. True to Wrigley Field tradition, they sang, “Take Me Out to The (Hockey) Game.”
  • The Blackhawks, on a nine-game winning streak, had lost two nights earlier in Detroit, their third setback in as many starts against the Red Wings. Coming of age in this rivalry, Brent Seabrook stenciled Dan Cleary over the boards at the Winter Classic.
  • For much of the week before the Winter Classic, there was talk of it being unseasonably warm on New Year’s Day. Then there was a revised forecast of a snowstorm. But the ice surface was excellent, although typical Wrigley Field wind currents were a factor, as noted by Weather Channel’s Jim Cantore, among the chilled broadcast crew that included Bob Costas and another former Blackhawk, Darren Pang.

  • The Blackhawks came out of the third base (Cubs) dugout, the Red Wings from first base, and players from both sides in throwback uniforms touched home plate en route to the rink.

  • As Coach Q explains, the Blackhawks were alternating goalies at the time on a regular basis. In the Classic, both Cristobal Huet started and Nikolai Khabibulin played.

  • Sign of the improving times: for several winters, Red Wing fans flocked to Chicago to watch their team in the United Center. At Wrigley Field, Blackhawk gear was seen everywhere in the crowd of 40,818.
  • Another sign: Brian Campbell, an offseason free-agent acquisition, on defense for the Blackhawks. One of Detroit’s stars was Marian Hossa, who would choose Chicago come next summer.
  • The gifted Red Wings fell behind, 3-1, then erupted for five straight goals to take an eight-point lead over Chicago in the Central Division. Disappointed, the Blackhawks adjourned to the Cubs’ clubhouse, described by one grumpy Tribune columnist as “a cathedral for consolation speeches.” But another Tribune columnist, Melissa Isaacson, trailed chairman Rocky Wirtz throughout the afternoon. He was already installed as Rocky Wirtz Superstar. “I’m amazed people know who I am…I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Wirtz, as a spectator yelled in his direction, “Rocky for Mayor!”
  • “I would’ve given 100-to-1 odds against us getting this game,” Wirtz went on. “It was all John. I would’ve thought it would be New York. They get everything.”
  • More Rocky: “Some people think, ‘if I build a good team, fans will just show up.’ Well, it doesn’t always work that way. But we reconnected. That’s the important thing. It’s why John and I got along so well right away, because he understands all about relationships.”
  • Rocky after the Blackhawks lost: “This was still a great event. And now we know what we have to be. Every day. These are Stanley Cup champs. But we’re not backing down. These people want this team to succeed. Our fans want us to win. And John and I will find a way. Not tonight. But we will do it for them.” That was Jan. 1, 2009. On June 9, 2010, in Philadelphia, the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup by beating the Flyers, 4-3, on Patrick Kane’s overtime goal in Game 6. A couple days later, a estimated 2 million people enveloped The Loop for a parade. It was another outdoor classic, only 18 months after the Blackhawks took the ice at Wrigley Field, intent on a return to NHL royalty.

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