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Hawks lose outdoors at Wrigley in 'Winter Classic'

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CHICAGO (AP) -For all the bad blood between the Red Wings and Blackhawks, and all the novel ways they've come up with over the years to spill it, maybe the only surprise is that no one ordered them to "take it outside" before this.

Seven hundred times previously, more than any two teams in pro hockey, these "Original Six" members met and yet rarely raised this kind of ruckus. But a hometown crowd unused to seeing anything stirring in Wrigley Field from September until spring didn't have to wait long to find their familiar ballpark transformed into the "Unfriendly Confines."

Just two minutes in, Chicago defenseman Brent Seabrook lined up Detroit's Dan Cleary, bounced him into the boards and then deposited him headfirst into the Hawks' bench. It was payback for the bruised leg Cleary gave rising Chicago star Patrick Kane during the Red Wings' 4-0 thrashing in Detroit two nights earlier. That one broke the Hawks' nine-game winning streak, and riding the momentum from Seabrook's hit to a 3-1 lead by the end of the first period, it looked like the locals were going to get revenge.

But that idea got buried by three unanswered scores in the second as the reigning Stanley Cup champions piled on the quality in waves, rolling up a 43-37 advantage in shots and a 6-4 win in the NHL's second Winter Classic.

"It wasn't just another game," Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said. "We had to bring our best game against them. But they played some very important games the last part of last season and they know what it's like to play a big game.

"And to me," he added, "this was a big game and a big experience. They responded well."

If the game wasn't a success for the Blackhawks, it was a near-perfect showcase for the NHL, venerated Wrigley, the city of Chicago, and perhaps even its quest to play host for the 2016 Summer Olympics. Commissioner Gary Bettman went out of his way to put in a plug on that score.

"Had a chance to chat with Mayor Daley," Bettman said. "I hope the Olympic bid is successful, because there's no doubt this is a great sports town."

The game certainly had a wintry, old-school feel, from the relatively comfortable 32 degrees when the puck was dropped to the snow dumped around the playing field to surround the rink - complete with a brick facade that mirrored Wrigley's walls - to the retro jerseys on both sides and the fedoras donned by the Red Wings coaching staff in a nod to a few of their legendary predecessors.

"Just old-time hockey," Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said about his fashionable felt hat. "We needed something on our head, even though we didn't realize the benches were going to be as warm as they were.

"Probably didn't need it. And no," he added, smiling after back-to-back wins over their closest pursuers, "I won't be donning it again."

If his expression was any indicator, Bettman should have walked around the old ballyard in a top hat. His sport is still struggling to carve out a niche in the United States and rarely gets this kind of attention - unless one player caves in a rival's head or, like bad-boy Sean Avery did recently, disses his ex-girlfriend. But the sports calendar broke well and the novelty of ancient Wrigley, one of baseball's grand dames, decked out in winter clothes to usher in the new year made it a compelling event.

"The place was rocking. The national anthem was unbelievable," Kane said. "And just looking around, realizing you're playing a hockey game on a baseball field. It's probably a once-in-a-lifetime thing, and I definitely will cherish it."

Kane is right about that. Detroit goaltender Ty Conklin was actually playing in his third outdoor NHL game, having been in the nets for the Oilers in the first unofficial Winter Classic in Edmonton a half-dozen years ago and again for the Penguins in Buffalo last January. The feeling, he said, never gets old.

"I count myself very lucky," Conklin said. "There's not a guy in this league who wouldn't like to play in these games."

Their chances will come soon enough. Bettman was coy about where he plans to take the game next, but he won't be hurting for invitations. There was talk this year's Classic would be the last event played in the old Yankee Stadium, but New York is hardly the only town in the mix.

"It's something that we know can be a special part of our game if we do it right," the commissioner said.

"I have no doubt that after today's events the number will be increased and those that have expressed their interest will reinforce it. It won't be perfect science," he said of the selection process, "but hopefully when we make the decision, it will turn out like this."

The event seemed - to borrow a term from basketball, the game that early NHL owners nurtured to fill up the empty dates in their rinks - a slam dunk. Going back to hockey's outdoor roots stirred more than fond memories of frozen ponds among longtime fans; it helped fire up the imagination of a few new ones.

Ryne Sandberg and Billy Williams, two former Cubs greats who were on hand for the ceremonies as representatives of Wrigley's past, came up to the press box after the opening faceoff to warm up.

"Can you believe it?" Sandberg turned to Williams. "A rink in the middle of our field."

"When they first mentioned it to me, it sounded like something somebody thought up after too many beers. But you know what?" Williams said. "It was a damn-near perfect place to put down a hockey game."

Amen.

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Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitkeap.org

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