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NHL Winter Classic

Winter Classic between Bruins, Blackhawks promises to be spectacle

Notre Dame Stadium will provide magical setting on New Year's Day

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Imagine the moment. Jim Cornelison sings "The Star-Spangled Banner," and the fans stand and cheer like they do before Chicago Blackhawks games at United Center.

Only now Cornelison syncs with the South Bend Symphony Orchestra, and about 74,000 people -- the second-largest crowd to attend an NHL game -- roar before the Blackhawks play the Boston Bruins in the 2019 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic on Tuesday (1 p.m. ET; NBC, SN, TVAS).

Four A-10 Thunderbolt II planes fly over Notre Dame Stadium, Touchdown Jesus and the Golden Dome.

Yes, this will be the NHL's 26th stadium game since 2003, its 11th Winter Classic since 2008. This will be the Blackhawks' sixth outdoor game, the Bruins' third.

But the beauty of these events is how they elevate regular-season games into spectacles, and this will be the first at Notre Dame.

"The challenge here is, how do you keep them fresh and how do you not make them feel like, oh, just another game?" NHL executive vice president and chief content officer Steve Mayer said. "And it's the moments that happen throughout.

"This is not to take away from a hockey game, but what I always like to emphasize is, when people get in their car after the game, they're going to go, 'Oh, man. How cool was that flyover?' Or, 'When they introduced Bobby Hull …'

"Those are the moments people remember, and how do you create more and more of those moments in each game?"

This particular event has been percolating for years.

Mayer was executive producer of "A Season with Notre Dame Football," a TV series that followed the Fighting Irish in 2015. He spent time on campus looking at the landscape and learning about the tradition.

Then he joined the NHL. By then, the League had staged outdoor games in venues like Wrigley Field, Fenway Park, Dodger Stadium and Soldier Field, not to mention the new version of Yankee Stadium. It had set an attendance record of 105,491 at 2014 Winter Classic at Michigan Stadium. 

"I was like, 'OK, where is the iconic place that we haven't gone yet?' " Mayer said. " 'Let's call Notre Dame.' "

Video: Mayer on Notre Dame tradition during Winter Classic

The university answered. Notre Dame Stadium, built in 1930, could accommodate the Winter Classic after switching from natural to artificial turf in 2014 and completing its latest renovation in 2017.

The matchup had to be fitting. The Blackhawks made sense because of the proximity of Chicago, 100 miles west. But this was Notre Dame, home of the Fighting Irish, famous for their history. Boston and Chicago were cities with Irish communities, and the Bruins and Blackhawks were Original Six teams.

"We wanted history here," Mayer said. "I think as we move forward we're going to want to go toward a little of the new NHL, but this was absolutely a salute to the history."

The logo had to work for both Notre Dame and the NHL. 

"The shamrock says everything," Mayer said. "It's Notre Dame right away."

Then it was about the game presentation, tying together the histories and traditions of the NHL and Notre Dame, adding local flavor from South Bend.

Video: Analyzing the construction of the Winter Classic rink

Notre Dame students are on break, and the Fighting Irish played Clemson in the semifinals of the College Football Playoff on Saturday. The NHL could not incorporate things like the Notre Dame Marching Band. But the Winter Classic will echo a Notre Dame football game day.

The Blackhawks will walk through the fans from the Hesburgh Library to the stadium, like the Fighting Irish do.

"That's the coolest thing," Mayer said. "When Notre Dame comes off the bus and they walk together as a team, it is a sight to see. I was like, 'We've got to do that.' "

The teams will emerge from their dressing room and walk out of the Knute Rockne gate in full uniform, displayed against the backdrop of Touchdown Jesus, before walking down the tunnel underneath the Fighting Irish's national championship banners.

On the field will be a replica of the famous sign: "PLAY LIKE A CHAMPION TODAY." Eight huge shamrocks will sprout from snow. Four will feature Blackhawks legends Tony Esposito, Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita and Denis Savard. Four will feature Bruins legends Ray Bourque, Johnny Bucyk, Bobby Orr and Eddie Shore. 

Bourque, Bucyk, Esposito, Hull and Savard will be on hand. So will Notre Dame football alumni like Tim Brown and Raghib "Rocket" Ismail.

Oh, and the Leprechaun mascot too.

"What are we going to do that makes this different than the last one and the one before?" Mayer said. "And ultimately, what is going to make this the best one ever? Because that's what we're just constantly trying to do."

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