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Blackhawks players marvel at their field of dreams

by Rich Libero

Newly appointed captain Jonathan Toews and the Chicago Blackhawks will battle the defending Stanley Cup Champion Detroit Red Wings at Wrigley Field in the NHL Winter Classic 2009 on New Year's Day.
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CHICAGO -- Chicago Cubs fans, in search of their first World Series championship in 100 years, have issued a tagline for this season: "It's gonna happen."

While nothing in Cubs history has proven to be a lock, one thing became certain Tuesday at Wrigley Field: The Chicago Blackhawks will indeed host the defending Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings in the NHL Winter Classic 2009 on New Year's Day.

"It's a fairy tale, storybook type of thing, so it's awesome to be a part of this," newly appointed Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews said.

Representatives from the National Hockey League, the Blackhawks, Red Wings, Cubs and the NHL Players' Association gathered Tuesday morning atop the third-base dugout at the historic ballpark to talk about the forthcoming Winter Classic.

Eleven Blackhawks players attended the news conference as well as Hawks alums and Hockey Hall of Famers Stan Mikita, Bobby Hull and Tony Esposito. They, along with the media, were invited to walk inside a temporary rink layout in order to get a sense of the scale and perspective of the event.

Blackhawks right wing Adam Burish, who played in an outdoor game at Green Bay's Lambeau Field during his days at the University of Wisconsin, said the rink felt narrower and smaller.

"The rink was the same and there are times when it feels smaller," Burish said.

Wrigley is significantly smaller than Lambeau Field and is known as the "Friendly Confines." It exists as a gingerbread house of a baseball stadium nestled among three-story townhouses. Its brick walls -- covered in lush green ivy in the summer -- green seats and simple steel structure will serve as the backdrop in a postcard that will neatly wrap up the holiday season.

"Now that we have it here, everyone is really excited about it," said Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane, the 2007-08 Calder Trophy winner as the NHL's top rookie. "I'm sure every guy here wants to play in it. Things like this, it really makes you want to play hockey again."

Burish agreed.

"This weekend we had Fan Fest and it was madness. Now I'm standing here in Wrigley Field and I'm ready to go and play right now,' he said.

As Mikita and Esposito shuffled down the third-base line toward the temporary rink, they marveled at the carpet-like grass. The conversation served as a perfect moment where everyone, caught up in the beauty of Wrigley, also tried to flash forward and picture the winter scene.

NHL personnel spent the time surveying the site, considering rink positions, sight lines and angels for television cameras. The survey serves to contrast the simplicity of the stadium against the complicated requirements of hosting an outdoor hockey game.

Burish is one of several players who has previously participated in an outdoor game, and he's already offering his teammates some advice: "When you have that long walk out to the rink, it's going to be 200 or 300 feet and that's a chance to look around and take in the scenery, look at the fans and read the signs and banners," Burish said.

"I guess when I came here the first time and threw out the first pitch and sang the seventh inning stretch, you don't think that you'd end up playing on the field," Kane said.

The news conference opened at 11 a.m. local time, with a mix of sun and clouds. A cool, light breeze lofted in off Lake Michigan. As the conference was about to get under way, Hull took his seat on the stage and looked up at the flags adorning the roof on the third-base side of the stadium. He raised a hand and said: "This'll be the way the wind will be blowing."

"I guess when I came here the first time and threw out the first pitch and sang the seventh inning stretch, you don't think that you'd end up playing on the field." - Calder Trophy winner Patrick Kane on the Winter Classic 2009 at Wrigley Field

It remains to be seen as to whether the Golden Jet owns meteorological skills that can match his famous slap shot, but Wrigley Field is best known for its unpredictable weather and cool breezes.

The Winter Classic can be a gamble against Mother Nature, but the weather in Chicago on New Year's Day has been generally kind -- around 35 degrees in recent years. For fans used to braving the elements at Chicago Bears football games, the Winter Classic shouldn't be anything out of the ordinary in terms of preparation.

"I don't think people are going to care about what the conditions are like. It's about the event," Burish said. "I'm ready to play on this grass right now."

Even though the event will be historic and majestic, Toews cautioned that it is a regular-season game and as a result, it needs to end with a victory for the home team.

"I guess in a way you can be a kid and have fun, but this isn't a game you can go out and just enjoy," the 20-year-old said. "We want to win. We have to forget about all the stuff that's going on around us."

This edition of the Winter Classic promises to be one that will be hard to forget.

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