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Bettman very pleased with NHL's day in Wrigley

by Shawn P. Roarke /
CHICAGO -- NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman had a thank you list as long as that of an Oscar winner when the Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic 2009 was complete Thursday afternoon.

But there was one special shout out that stood above all others in the minutes after Detroit had completed a 6-4 win over Chicago.

"I want to thank the Chicago Cubs and Wrigley Field," Bettman said. "This unique, special place, 95 years old, has had its share of great moments, and we'd like to think that today is up there with those great moments. It was a very special day for us, in large part, because of where we were."

"The Friendly Confines" played a big part in the theater created Thursday afternoon on a perfectly cold and cloudy day in the Windy City. The intimate stadium was packed to the gunnels with 40,818 hearty fans who braved a biting wind and 30-degree temperatures to celebrate a hockey happening like no other.

They roared their pleasure about their good fortune and the events they watched unfold -- even though the home team could not pull out the perfect ending hoped for -- for four-straight hours, making a usually dormant Wrigley the center of the Chicago universe for one unforgettable winter day.

The fans -- and Wrigley itself -- were treated to the best of the three regular-season outdoor games played by NHL teams. It is hard to argue that the first Winter Classic, held last year in Buffalo, or the Heritage Classic, played in Edmonton five years ago, were of the same caliber as Thursday's game.

Bettman said Wrigley was blessed with a confluence of good fortune, which resulted in a 10-goal offensive barrage and the crispness of play usually associated with more controlled environs.

"In terms of the logistics of the event, I think one of the reasons we got quote, a better game, is a combination of two things," Bettman said. "One, (was the) weather conditions."

Bettman noted that the Heritage Classic was played in temperatures that were too severe, with the mercury hitting 20 below at one point. As for the Winter Classic in Buffalo, the falling snow that defined that game's aesthetic also hampered the actual play on the ice. Snow buildup on the ice slowed down the puck, and the falling snow impaired the players' vision.

"(Today), I think the weather conditions were ideal," Bettman continued before getting to his second point.

"Number two, the ice was really good. It was probably better than it was in some of our rinks."

Dan Craig, the NHL's ice guru, was on the thank you list Bettman blitzed through Thursday afternoon. There is no denying that he did a yeomen's job in grooming the playing surface for more than two weeks for three hours of play, but Craig also benefitted from the lessons learned last year, as well as more time to put down the ice surface this year.

So with the 2009 Winter Classic scaling new heights, is Commissioner Bettman already planning his thank you list for New Year's Day 2010 after the third Winter Classic has been put in the history books?

For Bettman, it is too early to say what the future holds for the Winter Classic, but he acknowledged the demand is there to make it quite feasible. Probably more than half the NHL's 30 markets have made at least casual inquiries about hosting an outdoor game.

"We have had lots of expressions of interest," Bettman said. "I have no doubt that after today's event, the number will be increased and those that have already expressed an interest will reinforce it.

"I have no idea where we're going next. We haven't given it any thought. I never like to look ahead. I like to get through these one at a time, debrief, look at what we can improve. Then, we will look at other candidates and make some sort of judgment."

But one thing is clear. It will be awfully hard to beat what transpired Thursday at Wrigley Field. To use a very appropriate baseball analogy, considering the surroundings, this Winter Classic was a grand slam.

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