I am on a plane, heading to the Windy City for the Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic, and I am getting more and more excited about the game!
I felt the same way last year, nervous, excited, not sure what to expect, broadcasting outdoors.
But this one IS different. Yes, I now know what to expect from the elements of an outdoor game, but this is closer to my heart. I lived in Chicago for 20 years. My son and daughter were born there. Loyola Medical Center in Maywood, Ill., saved our son Tyler's life. Twice. How can this not be a special place? We have some of our best friends still in this city. It will always be a special place.
I have been in broadcasting since I retired from the NHL in 1990. I played my last NHL game in the 1989 playoffs as a member of the Blackhawks, as we went all the way to the Western Conference Finals against the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Calgary Flames.
My career ended a year later. I was 26 years old.
I tore an ACL before Game 5 in practice vs. Calgary in 1989 and rehabbed it with current Hawks trainer Mike Gapski.
|Broadcaster Mike Milbury (left), Director of NHL Broadcasting John Shannon (middle) and Darren Pang pose at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo at last year's Winter Classic. |
He was awesome. We went hard at it and I came back to the ice in roughly 4 1/2 months. My surgeon was Dr. William Clancy, a man and surgeon that was way ahead of his time. We were aggressive and proactive and they did a great job of getting me back on ice to rejoin the organization in time for the end of the 1990 IHL regular season and the playoffs with the Indianapolis Ice.
I had the pleasure of playing for Darryl Sutter, one of the very best Hawks leaders, as we won the Turner Cup Championship.
I was back in Chicago for the summer and training hard as I really thought I could get back in the NHL for the next season.
I hit a major road bump. I re-injured my knee a month before training camp. Should never have been playing tennis on clay courts!
Nevertheless, it was back to the Alabama Medical Center for repairs, and my career was in serious jeopardy. I hurried back from Alabama, where Dr. Clancy performed his second surgery on my left knee, and third overall on that same knee. I had to get back as the Hawks were having a going away party at Butterfield Country Club for the recently traded Denis Savard.
Savvy is truly one of the very best. Love the guy. He deserves a lot of credit for this great young team in Chicago. He put his heart and soul into the franchise.
He was a great teammate and friend. He was my neighbor and we drove to the Stadium for many practices. Full of life. Smoked a lot of cigarettes. Still had great energy. He loved getting on the ice. He loved to dangle, laugh, deke you out of your jock strap and then do it again.
He was just traded to Montreal for Chris Chelios, a Chicago native that grew up loving Stan Mikita, Dick Butkus and the Chicago Bears.
As I get ready for the Winter Classic, I remember these things.
I remember how great a man Bill Wirtz was. He was loyal. He loved his players. He was a tough businessman. He taught you about loyalty and doing the little things the right way.
My first position with the Hawks when I retired was with WBBM News Radio 78, as it was the flagship station of the Hawks, the Mighty Blackhawks...you know the song.
Our studio before and after the game was in a small room, with a small bathroom in it. One night the Hawks weren't very good and my partner, Brian Davis, started the show by having his mic nearly in the toilet, and he flushed it as we started the show. "Well, that about sums up the Hawks’ play tonight..."
We answered phone calls after games and tried as best we could to explain why Mr. Wirtz wouldn't put the Hawks on home TV. Tough to explain, but we did the best we could. Mr. Wirtz would personally call me and say I was doing a 'fine job' with the callers. He always said, "I know it can't be easy..."
Now it’s the Winter Classic in Chicago.
Mark Grace and the boys. The Cubs. The summer sun beating down on the most loyal fans in all of sports. The ivory and bricks.
This morning I get up and look out the window of the Drake Hotel and for miles I see the shore and the Gold Coast. Oak Street beach is right below my window. It’s a classic winter day as I get ready for the game.
I step outside and the brisk wind grabs my attention. It is the wind. It’s not that cold, only three days before the game, but the wind will be the challenge for sure.
NBC did a great job last year in Buffalo letting the elements tell the story. The game was the story. The snow coming down. The players were cold and constantly wiping their eyes, face and visors if they had one on. Darryl Sydor started the game with one on, but ended the game without it. Too much maintenance, and dangerous as well as it was tough to see, even a few feet in front of you.
Our producer, Sam Flood, is an experienced hockey player himself, and makes sure the game is the main topic of conversation on the air. He allowed us, as broadcasters, simply to tell the story. What is the wind like? What adjustments do the coaches have to make? Are the goalies able to see the puck?
These are every analyst’s dream position to be in. Just relay the story to the audience. What a pleasure it was to be in that environment and hopefully the weather lets us just tell the story.
Last year there were 72,000 passionate fans that wouldn't leave their seats, all bundled up and trying to be as warm as they could be. It was truly a sight to behold. At one point, singing Neil Diamond’s "Sweet Caroline"...and it sounded good!
Being between the benches with skates on made it unique, as I hopped over the boards many times to interview a player, show the viewers the built up snow on the ice and how they have to battle the elements. I even tossed a snowball at the main men behind the microphones, Doc Emrick and Ed Olczyk, a former teammate of mine with the Hawks, before he was traded to Toronto.
The fans love this stuff.
Casual fans love to see an outdoor stadium with grown men playing the sport they love, the same way most of these guys competed as kids. We all started out on outdoor rinks or ponds. In the elements. In the snow. Facing adversity. Laughing. Competing.
I can't wait to get to Wrigley Field.
Several years back, I was up in the scoreboard and my duty was to change the score as the Cubs were struggling. I had to place the old tin numbers in the right spot. It was hot and muggy. It was so cool to be up there. What an experience that was.
On Jan. 1, I will see the first NHL game played at Wrigley and I can't wait. No need for anyone up in that old scoreboard.
The Wings vs. the Hawks. The defending Champs vs. the Contender, a real legitimate contender.
Datsyuk and Zetterberg against Kane and Toews.
Outdoors. Let the temperature drop and let the game begin!