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A truly great day for hockey

by Dan Rosen
CHICAGO -- The historic hand-operated scoreboard beyond the center field wall showed a two-goal victory for the Detroit Red Wings, but Thursday's mega-event at Wrigley Field was a blowout for the city of Chicago, the near 41,000 fans inside the Frozen Confines and the entire National Hockey League.

It's just too bad they didn't play two. It was that kind of perfect.

The Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic on New Year's Day 2009 will be remembered as nothing but a rousing success, and the Stanley Cup champs showed why they still are the best, taking a 6-4 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks on one of the most historic afternoons in professional sports history.

"You want to win this game because 10 years from now when they ask you who won the Winter Classic, you get to say, 'We did,' " Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said. "And, plus, it's exciting. I don't care if you're (Chris) Chelios and you're 46 or if you're (Kris) Draper and you're 37. … I mean, it's a thrill to be out there on the ice."

That famous ice, created by NHL Facilities Operations Manager Dan Craig, held up perfectly. The wind wasn't too much of a factor. The temperature at game time was ideal, a brisk 31.9 degrees Fahrenheit. Overcast skies were just what the doctor ordered.

"Just sitting on the bench and looking at the whole crowd, the whole atmosphere, it was unreal," Blackhawks right wing Patrick Kane said. "It was like it wasn't really happening."

Oh, it was. Yes, it finally was.

Wrigleyville was jumping by 9 o'clock Thursday morning with fans from all over the country, some lucky enough to have tickets to the Winter Classic and some who didn't, but just wanted to be a part of it, filling the neighborhood streets.

The gates to the famous ballpark opened at 10 and the stadium began to fill up. By noon it was packed. The fans were chanting.

"It exceeded my expectations," Red Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom said.

Chicago sports legends Denis Savard, Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita, Tony Esposito, Ryne Sandberg, Ferguson Jenkins and Billy Williams were honored. Bobby Hull actually got a bigger ovation in Wrigley Field than any of the former Cubs.

Yeah, it was a hockey crowd on a hockey day at a hockey rink.
The boys of winter made it that way.

"It was fantastic being involved in the event," Babcock said. "I assume some people's seats were a little far from the action, but just to be involved in the event was special."

The players entered the ice through a cloud of smoke and fire shooting toward the sky. The fans were so engaged they turned Wrigley Field into the loudest hockey venue around.

"I think my favorite part was coming out of the dugout and seeing the crowd and the excitement and people's faces and hearing the crowd noise," Lidstrom said. "Just sucking everything in once you stepped on the field."

Soon after a riveting rendition of the U.S. National Anthem and the military flyover, Ted Lindsay and Hull dropped ceremonial pucks between Lidstrom and Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews.

"It was thrilling," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said.

Then, all the hype washed away and a hockey game took place with two important points on the line between the NHL's longest-standing rivals. Thursday was the 701st meeting all time among the Hawks and Wings, the most by any two teams in League history.

The crowd energized the Blackhawks right from the start.

Kris Versteeg scored the first-ever NHL goal in a baseball stadium 3:24 into the first period. Detroit forward Mikael Samuelsson evened it up roughly six and a half minutes later, but the Blackhawks kept buzzing.

Martin Havlat and Ben Eager both scored before the first intermission, staking the Hawks a 3-1 lead and sending an already unbelievable crowd into a frenzy as they headed for the concession stands to stock up.

"Before the game everybody was kind of looking around and trying to take in the atmosphere and get accustomed to it," Blackhawks forward Patrick Sharp said. "Certainly the energy level was high to start. Everybody was pumped up. The pre-game festivities were very exciting and we came out and played the way we wanted to to start the game."

Meanwhile, after trudging up to their dressing room, the veteran Red Wings began to pump themselves up. Babcock said Kirk Maltby did a good job of "talking to the guys about what we needed to do and talking about our plan and getting back at it."

"We've got a good hockey team as you know, an experienced group that doesn't get rattled very easily," the coach continued. "You want to be proud of each other, so we thought we better get going."

They did with a flurry.

Jiri Hudler scored two goals, including his first just 1:14 into the second period, and Pavel Datsyuk used his speed to knife through both Chicago defensemen Brian Campbell and Cam Barker to score his 16th of the season.

By the end of two periods, the Wings had washed away Chicago's two-goal lead and staked themselves to a 4-3 lead with 20 minutes left to play.

"I thought the second goal was a tough goal," Quenneville said. "It looked like we had the puck in the neutral zone and the next thing you know it's in our net, 3-2. They got a lot of life off of that. The play was more in our end.
"You want to win this game because 10 years from now when they ask you who won the Winter Classic, you get to say, 'We did.' And, plus, it's exciting. I don't care if you're (Chris) Chelios and you're 46 or if you're (Kris) Draper and you're 37. … I mean, it's a thrill to be out there on the ice." -- Mike Babcock

"I thought we did everything we wanted to do in the first period. We had a lot of excitement with the building and ourselves the way we were playing. They got some life off of that."

The champs weren't done yet.

Brian Rafalski sent a dagger through the severely pro-Hawks crowd at Wrigley by scoring a power-play goal 3:07 into the third. Seventeen seconds later, local boy done good Brett Lebda made it 6-3 by drilling a point shot just under the crossbar.

It was initially waved off, but a video replay clearly showed it was a goal and the officials reversed the call.

"I wish I would have known it went in right away," said Lebda, who grew up a Cubs fan from nearby Buffalo Grove. "I would have changed my celebration a little bit."

Duncan Keith capped the scoring with a goal at 19:50 of the third period, but it meant little to the Blackhawks.

Chicago entered this week with a chance to pull into first place in the Central Division if it could have picked up a pair of regulation wins over the Wings. The Hawks are instead eight points back, still with two games in hand.

They play again Sunday, at the United Center against the Calgary Flames. The Wings are bound for St. Paul, Minn., where they play the Wild Saturday night.

It'll be interesting to see if there is a Winter Classic hangover.

Judging by the phenomenal show that took place here Thursday, how could there not be?

"It's probably a once-in-a-lifetime thing for some of us, and I definitely cherished it," Kane said. "If I could ever play in a game like that again I'd definitely love to. It was really cool being out there."

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