One night during the holiday season a few winters ago, Chicago Cubs pitcher Ryan Dempster and his brother were enjoying a few cold ones at a ranch in 100 Mile House, B.C., when they got adventurous.
"We having a couple of beers and we were like, 'What's down there?' " Dempster, pointing in the distance now, told NHL.com. "It looked like a tiny little pond. We took a shovel down, scooped up the snow and all of a sudden we felt ice. We ended up spending the whole night with my cousins scooping all the snow up and we found this little pond iced over. We hosed it down, made little goals out of some logs and sat around and played hockey until 1 in the morning. It was a blast. I love that stuff."
Dempster, a Cubs starting pitcher who grew up in Sechelt, B.C., said he was never more than a shinny hockey player because he "kind of skated like Happy Gilmore." But like a lot of Canadian kids, Dempster has lasting memories of skating in the cold and the snow, long past the time he was due in for dinner.
So, it's no surprise that Dempster is excited to for the Winter Classic at Wrigley Field on Jan. 1. For a few hours at least, one of Chicago's boys of summer will get to see some of the greatest players in the game skating like kids again.
The 2009 Winter Classic will be held at Wrigley Field in Chicago, where the host Blackhawks will meet the Detroit Red Wings at 1 p.m. ET in the 701st meeting between the teams. NBC will provide live broadcast coverage of the game in the U.S., while CBC and RDS will televise the event in Canada. The game also will be carried on NHL Radio, which will provide coverage for radio stations across North America and XM Satellite Radio, and NHL.com will provide extensive digital video coverage.
"I love hockey and what a sporting event to see!" Dempster said. "To say you went to a hockey game at a baseball stadium, but not just any stadium, Wrigley Field, I mean how cool is that? You're not going to see a lot of those in your lifetime. Plus, it's the Red Wings and Blackhawks. They're going to love the opportunity to just go out there and be kids again. What a fun experience for those guys!"
In a rare switch-a-roo, Dempster and some of his teammates plan to be on the sidelines at Wrigley Field when the NHL rolls in for its one-game showcase event.
Rich Harden, another Canadian boy who was born in Victoria, B.C., but played a lot of hockey while living in Calgary, said he and Dempster have talked about attending the game together.
Harden, who was a stay-at-home defenseman, said his childhood dream was to play in the NHL until 11th grade when major-league scouts started showing interest in him. He used to fall asleep to the Flames games on the radio.
"I would love to be able to watch that game, especially having it at Wrigley, too," Harden told NHL.com. "I grew up in Calgary playing outdoors. We played indoors, but in my free time I'd be messing around on an outdoor rink somewhere. I don't know, there is something about that. It's a completely different feeling. A lot of guys that are playing in (the Winter Classic) grew up doing the same thing. To me, there is no better feeling than being outside and playing."
Indiana-born Jeff Samardzija, also a Cubs relief pitcher, said he grew up a "huge Blackhawks fan." His father, Sam, who played semi-pro hockey in Chicago for several years, taught Jeff how to play the game.
It didn't stick as Jeff went on to be a football and baseball star at Notre Dame before choosing the diamond over the gridiron. But Jeff said he never lost his love for hockey or the Blackhawks, so he, too, wants to be at his home park on Jan. 1.
"I am hoping it snows and it's really cold," Samardzija told NHL.com. "I would love to get there and be rink side.
"The bigger venues they can play lives games at the better because it's such a great sport to watch live. It is probably is the best sport to watch live. I've seen them all and if I can pick one, hockey would be it."
Reliever Neal Cotts, who grew up 20 minutes outside of St. Louis but now calls Chicago home in the offseason, hopes to make it to the game. So, too, does reliever Kerry Wood, a Texan who admittedly doesn’t know much about hockey.
"I think we're going to be in Chicago for Christmas, so if I stick around for New Year's I'm definitely going to want to go," Wood told NHL.com. "I'm not really a big hockey fan, but I think it would be a great game to go watch. It's outdoors. It's Wrigley. It'll be a great show."
Cotts said he saw highlights of the Winter Classic game in Buffalo and said "it looked like something you see out of a movie. It looked really exciting."
Like most of the Cubs, Wood expressed his curiosity in finding out how the NHL plans to stage the event.
"I really don't know how they're going to set it up, but there won't be a bad seat in the house," Wood said. "It's a great place to watch a game."
Reliever Michael Wuertz, who grew up in Minnesota watching the North Stars and Golden Gopher hockey, told NHL.com that his first thought was "how are they going to get out to the rink from the clubhouse?
"Guys were also thinking, 'Are these guys crazy to be playing outside in January in Chicago?' "
As a Minnesota boy, Wuertz understands the intrigue of doing just that.
"Like you saw last year with Sidney Crosby, it's like little kids playing out there," he said. "There's snow coming down on the ice and Crosby making that shootout move he made. That's stuff you work on as a kid growing up. It's like a baseball player going back to the playground."