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Blackhawks, Red Wings meet in the great outdoors

by Dan Rosen

There will be no talk of curses allowed. Goats aren't welcome. If somebody wants to call his shot, well that's OK, but probably not recommended, because this is hockey and the goalie won't like it too much.

Oh yes, Wrigley Field is notorious for some of baseball's legendary -- and spookiest stories -- since it was built in 1914 around Clark and Addison Streets, and Sheffield and Waveland Avenues on the North Side of Chicago.

Jan. 1, 2009 figures to be another historic day for the venerable old ballpark when it opens its doors to the National Hockey League for NHL Winter Classic 2009, which this time features an Original Six matchup.

The host Chicago Blackhawks will square off against the defending Stanley Cup champions, the Detroit Red Wings, in a 1 p.m. ET game that should not only capture the attention of the entire sports nation on arguably the greatest sports television day of the year, but could also be a key contest in what figures to be a tight Central Division race. It will be the 701st all-time meeting of the clubs. No NHL opponents have played more regular-season games against each other.

The game, the third in an outdoor venue put on by the NHL, will be televised live on NBC in the United States as well as CBC and RDS in Canada. NHL Radio will provide coverage across North America and will provide extensive digital video coverage.

"The NHL is delighted to bring its most historic rivalry to one of the most historic venues in sports," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said. "We thank Rocky Wirtz and John McDonough for their vision. We thank Mike Ilitch and the Red Wings for their cooperation. And we thank Mayor Daley, in advance, for the warm welcome we know the City of Chicago will extend to our newest tradition.

"We also acknowledge the interest and efforts of the New York Yankees and the City of New York throughout the NHL Winter Classic 2009 site selection process. We look forward to continuing discussions regarding the possibility of a future Winter Classic game at the new Yankee Stadium."

With the success of this year's Winter Classic in Buffalo, the players scheduled to take the ice at Wrigley Field are obviously teaming with anticipation.

"Look at the coverage Yankee Stadium is getting with the All-Star Game this week as they mention things like the Pope giving Mass there and all the concerts that have been there," Blackhawks forward Patrick Sharp told "Wrigley is in the same boat. To add an NHL game in the mix and to be a part of that is only going to add to the legend of Wrigley Field."

While it will take a monumental effort for the Chicago game to match the drama and mystique of the Buffalo game, when Sidney Crosby's shootout goal capped an unforgettable afternoon that included the largest crowd to ever see an NHL game and a gorgeous Western New York snow fall, Wrigley Field has a charm unto its own.

Whereas Ralph Wilson Stadium is a venue for football that sat more than 71,200 for the hockey game, Wrigley Field became known as "The Friendly Confines" for its intimate setting that allows its roughly 40,000 occupants to feel as though they're part of the action.

Fans sitting in the double-decker grandstand nearly hover over the playing field. The bleachers in the outfield gradually rise from the corners and peak in center field, right below the legendary scoreboard that is so far from home plate that nobody has ever hit a ball off of it, save for Robert Redford's fictitious character, Roy Hobbs, in "The Natural."

Of course, any sports fan can close his or her eyes and visualize the ivy lining the brick wall in the outfield, although it probably won't be green in the dead of winter.

"I can remember going there a few times with my dad when I first got traded," Sharp said. "We're from Thunder Bay and I'm used to going to Skydome, or now Rogers Centre (in Toronto), or the Metrodome (in Minneapolis). I thought a real ballpark like Wrigley was pretty neat just to look around."

Playing an outdoor hockey game in a cold weather city means some unfriendly conditions could result.

"I remember going to Wrigley with a bunch of teammates in April and thinking how cold it was. I can't imagine what it will be like on Jan. 1." -- Patrick Sharp

In Buffalo it was the snowfall, which made Ralph Wilson Stadium look like a giant snow globe on live television, but made the ice difficult to skate on, forcing a few extra appearances by the Zamboni throughout the game.

In Chicago, it could very well be the wind ripping off nearby Lake Michigan. While January is already Chicago's coldest month -- the temperature rarely goes below 18 degrees Fahrenheit and almost never goes above freezing, perfect for making good ice -- the wind can make Wrigley Field feel like a walk-in freezer.

"I remember going to Wrigley with a bunch of teammates in April and thinking how cold it was," Sharp said. "I can't imagine what it will be like on Jan. 1."

Colder than it is in April, but so what? It was cold in Buffalo, too, but Blackhawks defenseman Brian Campbell, who played for the Sabres in last season's Classic, remembers the intoxicating buzz around the city leading up to game day.
"The city was all wrapped up in it," Campbell said. "It was, 'How do you get tickets?' 'What are you doing to get prepared?' 'What's your tailgate going to be like?' It was mayhem, a lot of fun, and something you take a lot of pride in."

Campbell also recalled how difficult it was to adjust to the conditions.

"I was on the ice for a goal against (21 seconds into the game) in because my defensive partner tried to pass it and there was too much snow on the ice and it wasn't going anywhere," he said. "I personally did not like the game at that point. Then I scored and the game was the best thing ever."

The television ratings and reviews by attending media and those watching around North America prove how groundbreaking it was. The Winter Classic in Buffalo became one of the most talked about sporting events in the world on New Years Day 2008.

"I was in Europe, in the Czech Republic for the World Juniors, and there was a big buzz about it over there as well," Blackhawks GM Dale Tallon told "It was huge over there. There were big stories on BBC, CNN, all those channels."

"We were on the road in L.A. and I remember watching the Sabres and Penguins, the whole game," Sharp added. "It's not often I sit there and watch a whole game. I'm excited to have an opportunity to play in it now."

The buzz should only be ramped up for the Chicago game because of the history.

Cubs' legends Ernie Banks, Ryne Sandberg and Billy Williams carved Hall of Fame careers inside "The Friendly Confines." The Red Wings and Blackhawks will now have a chance to carve their own history into legendary ballpark, too.

Jan. 1, 2009. Save the date.

"I've been there on some cold days to watch the Cubs, especially in the early 70s, and remember wondering what we were still doing sitting there," Tallon said. "We never really thought about hockey when we were there. We will now."

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