That means the main event is finally here.
The puck is set to drop in the Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic at Wrigley Field just after 1 p.m. ET as the Chicago Blackhawks host the Detroit Red Wings in the first-ever NHL game at a baseball venue.
Over the course of the last half-month, one of baseball's cathedrals has been turned into a venue befitting an NHL regular-season game. It's the second NHL Winter Classic and third time the League has taken its brand outdoors.
"I am so impressed with what the NHL has done," Blackhawks President John McDonough told NHL.com. "I really think they have something here. Whether this ever gets to be in the pantheon of the Super Bowl I don't know, but it's certainly heading in that direction."
The Wings and Hawks come into the New Year's Day event first and second, respectively, in the Central Division. The matchup will be their 701st of all time, which is the most times any two teams have played one another in NHL history.
Detroit kicked off this historic week with a 4-0 win over Chicago at Joe Louis Arena on Tuesday. The Blackhawks, who had won nine-straight games prior to Tuesday's whitewashing, admit they were knocked off their game after Dan Cleary's hit on Patrick Kane at the half-wall just over seven minutes into the first period.
Kane had to leave the game. He returned in the second period, but Hawks defenseman James Wisniewski said Chicago was too focused on getting revenge on Cleary.
"I do think it got Chicago a little rattled," Cleary told NHL.com. "Patty is the big spoke on the wheel for that team, and you have to get to him."
Both teams flew to the Windy City following Tuesday's game, and each got its first taste of the freshly made sheet of ice atop Wrigley Field's hallowed turf Wednesday afternoon.
"A lot of guys had the warm stuff on and by the time we got ready for practice they had taken it off already," Hawks forward Adam Burish said. "You're so excited and so revved up that you're not going to be cold. The cold isn't an issue. The ice isn't an issue. Who cares? We get to play a hockey game at Wrigley Field. This is as good as it gets."
Prior to the puck drop, the NHL has scheduled an extravaganza for the 41,000-plus fans lucky enough to have a ticket to the game plus millions more watching across the globe: Chicago sports legends Ryne Sandberg, Ferguson Jenkins, Billy Williams, Bobby Hull, Tony Esposito, Stan Mikita and Denis Savard will be honored pre-game during a special on-field ceremony.
"I'm hoping I get to meet some of those guys. That would be pretty sweet," said Red Wings defenseman Brett Lebda, who grew up a Cubs fan from Buffalo Grove, Ill., a suburb about 20 minutes from Wrigley Field. "Just growing up around Wrigley and hearing about those guys, to meet them would be pretty special."
Following the salute to the legends, the show will continue with long-time Hawks anthem singer Jim Cornelison performing the U.S. National Anthem. Army reservist Scotty Newlands will perform the Canadian anthem.
The crowd is expected to work itself into a tizzy as Cornelison sings.
Just as the singing of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" is the signature event that defines Cubs' games at Wrigley Field, Cornelison's anthem defines Hawks games at the United Center. The crowd roars throughout the anthem as Cornelison works up his lungs to belt out the words louder than the crowd.
"Hearing the anthem, it will probably be the best it's ever been in Chicago," Kane told NHL.com. "That's saying something because it is always something to watch."
During both anthems, two Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornet jets will soar over Wrigley Field. They will be flown by Navy pilots from the VFA-122 "Flying Eagles" squadron in Lemoore, Calif.
As that is going on, American and Canadian flags will be unfurled in the outfield by soldiers from the U.S. Army Recruiting, U.S. Army Reserve and the Illinois Army National Guard, along with 100 cadets from the George S. Patton Military Academy.
"I didn't even know they were doing that," Hawks defenseman Brent Seabrook said. "I'm going to enjoy this just like everybody else."
Finally, before the Wings and Blackhawks put two points on the line in a regular-season game of historic proportions, two more legends will take center ice for a ceremonial puck drop. Ted Lindsay will represent the Red Wings and Hull will represent the Hawks.
"I think it's great for the NHL to get the exposure playing in New Year's Day," Red Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom
said. "I watched last year and it was fun to watch. I watch a lot of hockey, but I was excited to sit there and watch that game. Just all the elements of playing outdoors: a little snow, a real exciting game. It will be fun."
It is expected that Red Wings goalie Ty Conklin
will become the only NHL player to play in all three outdoor games.
Conklin was the starting goalie for the Edmonton Oilers in the 2003 Heritage Classic at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton and for the Pittsburgh Penguins in last year's Winter Classic in Buffalo's Ralph Wilson Stadium.
Conklin was on the losing end in Edmonton, but he led the Penguins to a 2-1 shootout victory last season in Buffalo.
"Winning it makes it a little more enjoyable for sure, but I couldn't say anything bad about either game," Conklin told NHL.com. "I wouldn't want to put one above the other. From a playing standpoint it was a little more comfortable last year for sure, but then again that first one is always so neat and something so new."
Blackhawks defenseman Brian Campbell is the only other player on either team to have played in an NHL-sponsored outdoor game. As a member of the Sabres, Campbell scored the first goal in the first-ever Winter Classic.
"I think the atmosphere will be a lot more intense this year just because it's so compact," Campbell said. "The seats are closer. It's not as far away."
Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith and Burish played in outdoor games as collegians. Burish played for Wisconsin in the Frozen Tundra Classic at Green Bay's Lambeau Field three years ago.
"It's a lot the same," Burish said. "You get out there for your first practice and the ice isn't very good, but it's the same excitement. It's something you never get the chance to do, so I'm pretty darn lucky. Once you get to the game and everything settles down, then you're just playing hockey, but when you sit back down on the bench you can look around and think, 'This is just unbelievable.'
"I can't wait for these guys to experience it. It's something you'll remember for the rest of your life."