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Youth hockey will be on display at Wrigley

by Adam Schwartz
The Detroit Red Wings and the Chicago Blackhawks won't be the only ones on the ice at Wrigley Field on New Year's Day for the Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic. An auxiliary rink, located slightly further into the outfield than the main rink, will host three teams of eight youth hockey players.

The NHL's diversity program, in conjunction with the Blackhawks, is making sure that when the Hawks and Wings aren't battling it out, fans are going to be treated to some youth hockey.

"We've invited a total of 24 kids, 10 of whom are from our diversity programs in Chicago," NHL Manager of Diversity Programming Rob Wooley told "The NHL supports two programs in the Chicago area as part of our Hockey is for Everyone initiative. One is located in Evanston and the other is through the AHAI diversity program. It's basically kids from all over the Chicago area."

The players, who range from 6 to 12 years old, come from a wide range of racial and ethnic backgrounds, Wooley said. They'll meet at the United Center and be taken to Wrigley Field, will greet players as they enter the field through a stick salute and skate on the pond before the game and during intermissions.

Wooley and his colleagues at the NHL used a unique method to select the kids who will partake in this memorable game of shinny.

"We wanted to make the process of picking the kids fun, so we sponsored a video contest," he said. "We asked the two diversity programs to have the kids send in a video where they talk about their passion and familiarity with the sport. That gave us a unique possibility to take a look at the kids and get a sense for their personality and love of the sport."

Unlike the game on the big rink, the kids will be playing 4-on-4.

"The idea was to make it kind of like pond hockey," Wooley said. "The theme we are pushing for is that, 'Grab the kids around the neighborhood have them put on some sweat pants give them a stick and let them play hockey.'"

While most of the kids participating have never been to an NHL game, they are going to receive VIP treatment at the Winter Classic. Wooley said a lot of them have never been to an NHL game, or to Wrigley Field, "so this is going to be an incredible experience for them."
During the game, the kids will watch from the warming hut with some special company — former NHL star Tony McKegney, who played for both teams during his career. The kids will have a unique opportunity to talk to him and learn more about his career in the NHL.

"I'm really looking forward to spending the day with these young hockey players," said McKegney, who also serves as an ambassador for the NHL's Hockey is for Everyone initiative. "It will certainly bring back memories for me as a young kid in Canada and having an outdoor rink in my back yard. I can't wait."

How the kids react to playing in front of more than 40,000 people is anyone's guess, but Wooley won't be surprised if a few of them have some butterflies.

"I think for a lot of the kids it's going to be overwhelming at first, because they are going to be stepping on the field in front of all the players and the fans," Wooley said. "The pond is front and center, right next to the rink. I think they are going to be quite shocked at first."

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