The Detroit Red Wings and the Chicago Blackhawks aren't going to be the only hockey players skating on the ice at Wrigley Field on New Year's Day for the Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic.
The auxiliary rink, located slightly further in the outfield than the main rink, will host three teams of eight youth hockey players.
The NHL's diversity program, in conjunction with the Blackhawks, is making sure that when the Hawks and Wings aren't battling it out, fans are going to be treated to some youth hockey.
"We've invited 10 kids from our diversity program in Chicago," NHL Manager of Diversity Programming Robert Wooley told NHL.com. "We support two programs in the Chicago area. One's in Evanston and the other is through the AI diversity program. It's basically kids from all over the Chicago area. It's a pretty diverse group of kids spanning from Hispanics, Asians, African-Americans to white kids. So, it's a pretty diverse group of kids playing hockey.
"What we've done is invited these kids, who are between the ages of 6 and 12, to come down to Wrigley Field. The morning of the Winter Classic they are going to meet at the United Center and the Blackhawks staff will take them to Wrigley Field and throughout the course of the game the kids will be incorporated into the day's programming. They'll be there as they greet players as they enter the field through a stick salute. They'll be skating on the pond throughout the course of the game; before the game, during the intermissions and if there's any kind of urgent need whether it be ice or weather where they need to break away from the game."
Wooley and his staff had their share of fun in selecting what kids would partake in this memorable game of shiny.
"We wanted to make the process of picking the kids fun, so we sponsored a video contest," Wooley said. "We asked the two diversity programs to have the kids send in a video where they talk about their passion and familiarity with the sport. That gave us a unique possibility to take a look at the kids and get a sense for their personality and love of the sport. There was a little internal committee here that looked at the videos."
The decision to make the games four-on-four as opposed to the normal five-on-five was to give it a casual ambience.
"The idea was to make it kind of like pond hockey to make it a four-on-four situation," Wooley said. "The theme we are pushing for is that, 'grab the kids around the neighborhood have them put on some sweat pants give them a stick and let them play hockey.'"
While most of the kids participating have never been to an NHL game, they are going to receive the VIP treatment at the Winter Classic.
"We're hoping to provide a really good experience for the kids," Wooley said. "We are going to treat them like VIPs. A lot of these kids have never been outside their hometown of where they live in Chicago. A lot of them have never been to a game let alone Wrigley Field so this is going to be an incredible experience for them."
During the game, however, the kids are going to be able to watch the game from the warming hut with some special company.
"During the game they will be in the warming hut. If there's a stop in play or something like that, they will go back out," Wooley said. "We've invited Tony McKegney, who is a former NHL player, he played the Red Wings and the Blackhawks, to be with us. He will be with the kids and the kids will have a chance to get to talk to him and learn about his career in the NHL. We are hoping to keep them occupied and they will be able to take a peek at the game and that's the plan."
How these kids react to playing in front of more than 40,000 people is anyone's guess, but Wooley believes that it is only natural for them to be a bit nervous.
"I think for a lot of the kids it's going to be overwhelming for them at first because they are going to be stepping on the field in front of all the players and the fans," Wooley said. "The pond is front and center right next to the rink. I think they are going to be quite shocked at first."Contact Adam Schwartz at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Author: Adam Schwartz | NHL.com Staff Writer