CHICAGO – Once hockey players become focused on the Stanley Cup Playoffs, it's hard for them to think about anything other than the next game in a series.
It takes something out of the ordinary to break their singular focus, even for a second. But the NHL did that Wednesday morning for players, coaches and fans of the Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins.
The League confirmed those teams will play outdoors next season at 8 p.m. ET on Saturday, March 1, 2014 at Soldier Field, which opened in 1924 and is home to the Chicago Bears of the National Football League. The event is part of the 2014 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series, in which the NHL plans to play a number of regular season games in outdoor venues during the 2013-14 season.
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"It's a great experience," said Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville, who rates coaching the Blackhawks in the 2009 Winter Classic at Wrigley Field as one of his favorite moments in professional hockey. "You go back to when we were at Wrigley and I think everybody had the time of their lives. It's a special game. Once we get into that season, you really anticipate it and look forward to it."
The NHL intends to announce more outdoor regular season games in the coming weeks, but this particular matchup ought to whet the appetite of hockey fans far and wide. Barring injuries, the Blackhawks and Penguins should offer plenty of star power and skill. It's somewhat similar to the 2009 Winter Classic at Wrigley Field, when the Blackhawks played the Detroit Red Wings.
That game had a longstanding rivalry fueling it, but Chicago and Pittsburgh have played some entertaining games in the past and even have the potential of meeting in this season's Stanley Cup Final.
"I think that's an exciting matchup that I think a lot of people will probably look forward to," Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews said. "The last time around, for a lot of the guys in [our] locker room that had the chance to play at Wrigley Field, it was an amazing day. A lot of things about it made it special. It'll be a different venue, but to be at home here again will be a cool thing.”
Chicago won't be the only team with previous experience playing in the great outdoors. A number of Penguins have participated in two Winter Classics; in 2008 at Buffalo's Ralph Wilson Stadium against the Buffalo Sabres and in 2011 at Pittsburgh's Heinz Field against the Washington Capitals.
"It takes you back," said Penguins defenseman Paul Martin, who played for Pittsburgh in the 2011 Winter Classic. "For me, I grew up skating on the pond. Definitely we all enjoyed it."
At the moment, Toews and his teammates are more amped up about facing the Minnesota Wild on Friday night at United Center in Game 2 of their Western Conference Quarterfinal. They hold a 1-0 series lead thanks to Bryan Bickell's goal in overtime Tuesday night.
Still, having an OT thriller followed up the next morning by confirmation of an outdoor game at Soldier Field brought smiles – slight as they were – to the faces of Blackhawks players who met with reporters at United Center on Wednesday.
In February, the Blackhawks practiced on an outdoor rink that was set up inside Soldier Field for a college hockey showcase called the Hockey City Classic. Joined by players from the USA Warriors Ice Hockey Program – which trains and supplies injured servicemen and women with hockey equipment and skills as a rehabilitation method – the Blackhawks got a feel of what it might be like to play a game there.
"That’s a long ways away, but it’s exciting," forward Patrick Sharp said. "I was here for the Wrigley Field game in 2009 and that was one of the highlights of my career in Chicago. It was a special day. We were able to skate at Soldier Field with the Warriors this year and it was a pretty cool setup, so it's going to be fun to play in that game. Hopefully the weather is nice and it’s not too cold, but [I'm] looking forward to it.'