|Mike Milbury & Darren Pang in Buffalo, NY
Last year I was fortunate to be able to be part of the NBC broadcast in Buffalo and the NHL’s first outdoor game in the United States.
Working alongside Ed Olczyk, Mike Emrick, Mike Milbury and Bob Costas, I was doing what I enjoy doing the most. I was rinkside. I put skates on between the benches and I believe for the first time ever in broadcasting, I was able to skate on the ice and do interviews, picked up the snow on the ice when there was some build up, and had the chance to be close to the players and the coaches during the heat of battle, in the cold!
It ended up being perfect. A close game, not a perfectly played game, and why would it be? It really didn’t matter. It was perfect and fans wanted to be a part of it, both at the venue and watching on TV.
It had all the elements. It had sun, snow, close to rain for awhile, clouds, and Sidney Crosby scores the GWG in the shootout.
Now we move forward.
Chicago is hosting Detroit.
And it will be at venerable Wrigley Field.
When I played for the Blackhawks in the mid to late 80’s, one of the first things all of us players wanted to do in training camp was go to a Cubs game. It is no different today.
NHL players will often head to Chicago in the summer and hang out. They take in Lake Shore Drive and the beaches along the Gold Coast. They play golf on some of the great golf courses in the world, tracks like Medinah, Butler National, Chicago Golf Club and Shoreacres, just to name a few.
And they all end up seeing the Cubs play. They go to Wrigley. They hang out in the neighborhood and take it all in. It is a special place to see a game. It is a destination. It is something they never forget.
It wasn’t much different than the ball players heading to old Chicago Stadium and seeing the Hawks play in front of a rowdy, energetic and sold out building that was also the place to be.
The Blackhawks may have earned the Comeback Franchise of the Decade award with all of the smart moves they made this past season.
It was always a challenge for the NHL to get the Hawks late owner, Bill Wirtz, to put home games on TV. I had many interviews and conversations with Mr. Wirtz while I was beginning my broadcast career in Chicago, where I was an analyst before I left for ESPN.
There were many nights I listened to ticked off Hawks fans because there was no TV for the local fans when the Hawks played at home. Mr. Wirtz was consistent at all times with his response. It was always about preserving the season ticket “subscribers” and making the home games the place to be. He was right. It did make it special to be there. It could hold around 19,500 and I bet there were 16,000 season ticket holders.
They made sure they got there for the National Anthem, sang by Wayne Messmer, and had a couple of cold beers right with them.
But when the team moved across the street and popular players were moved with regularity, the fans failed to show up, with regularity. And then they just stopped caring about this once beloved franchise.
Now he has passed and Rocky Wirtz is in charge. Years ago I was told by one of the Wirtz family members that either they get “into the race” or step aside with dignity and pride, and “get out of the race.” There was clearly no effort to improve the fan base, the team nor the chance to compete for the Cup, which they have not won since the glory days of Hull, Mikita and Hall in 1961. That has now changed. Rocky Wirtz is a good man and he cares about winning and he cares about the game. His son Danny grew up playing hockey, in fact he was a goalie. Pretty sharp kid, no doubt.
With some shrewd moves by Dale Tallon and the green light to go spend from Rocky Wirtz, the Hawks are a team and a franchise back on the rise.
Because of all the positive moves, home games on TV, a great young team led by Calder Trophy winner Pat Kane and finalist Jonathon Toews, this was an easy decision for the NHL to have the Hawks host the Wings at Wrigley Field. There was no resistance to help out this once very proud franchise, instead it was the opportunity by the NHL to help out this market and rivalry with the Wings.
The NHL had many choices and clearly Yankee Stadium would have been great. There is no denying that, especially after watching the recent MLB All-Star Game that was there.
I am looking forward to experiencing the walk into Wrigley. I just want to see the boards and the ice and the look on the faces of the players as they step onto the ice. It won’t be the 24 steps it once took to reach the ice surface from the locker room at the Stadium, but it is going to be darn close, I’m sure.
I am looking forward to seeing the Blackhawk Alumni, one of the best in all of sports. The Hawks will make sure they are a part of the festivities and the old players have been looking forward to being a part of a special hockey event in Chicago for some time. After all, for years they were the ones that had to answer all the negative questions and criticism from the dwindling fan base. They lived there and stayed during the off-season, when most of the players were all long gone, taking the lost season elsewhere.
It is certainly going to change for the better and the Winter Classic II will be a defining moment for the organization and the City of Chicago.
They have high expectations after the Sabres and Penguins show last year. It may not have the same ending, the same timing for snow and 71,000 fans, that never left their seats, but it will have plenty of history, ambience and that gridiron feel that you can’t manufacture. It will be Chicago and Detroit.
I can’t wait.