By Matt Majka Minnesota Sports and Entertainment Chief Operating Officer
I’m guessing an event like a hockey game at Wrigley Field in Chicago occurs approximately once every millennium. So when the NHL announced plans months ago to stage this year’s Winter Classic outdoor game at Wrigley, I put it on my “to do” list. And, as much as I knew I would enjoy the game from a spectator standpoint, I have to admit that there have been ongoing discussions around the Wild offices that, of all places, “The State of Hockey” would be a deserving place for an NHL outdoor game someday (with the Gophers and Twins stadiums nearing completion, it seems we’ll have an outdoor venue solution soon). So, I had an ulterior motive to go as well. In fact, Jack Larson (VP of Xcel Energy Center), John Maher (VP of Brand Marketing) and Jamie Spencer (VP of Customer Service and Sales) all came along on the one-day excursion to help size up the event. My two teenage sons, Sam and Nick, also managed to negotiate their way to the event.
After the Wild’s win over San Jose on Dec. 31, we agreed to abbreviate our respective New Year’s Eve celebrations in light of the fact that we would be catching a 6:55 a.m. flight to Chicago the next day. The day started inauspiciously with the departure delayed two hours, resulting in a mad dash across the airport to catch a different Chicago flight. We JUST made it, and, thankfully, that proved to be the most challenging part of our day.
We were in Chicago by 9 a.m. and barely beat the rush to the Wrigley neighborhood, arriving at 9:30. We found a great “greasy spoon” called the Salt and Pepper Diner (we highly recommend it) just a block away from the home plate entrance to Wrigley and chowed down breakfast. By 10:30 (and with the line by then extending out the diner's door) we were ready to make our move into Wrigley. We hesitated for a moment as we watched the flags above Wrigley whipping in the increasing winds. Maybe the diner wouldn’t be the worst place to hang for another 30 minutes or so. The looks on the impatiently waiting patrons' faces, though, forced us to give up our seats. It wasn’t frigid outside, but Chicago would live up to its nickname of “The Windy City” for this year’s Winter Classic.
The scene outside Wrigley was really developing. We weaved through souvenir stands (legitimate and illegitimate), an interactive plaza and the assembling masses on our way in. Inside the stadium, the Red Wings and Blackhawks contingents were warming up with their respective and competitive -- and not-so-nice -- chants. In an interesting nod to baseball, a couple of Blackhawks players chose to warm up by playing catch with a tennis ball along what would have been the third base line. We saw a fake octopus (Detroit’s legendary good luck symbol) hanged in effigy from the upper section. When we saw the ivy-imprinted banner hung all along the outfield walls and the brick-imprinted banner hung on the exterior of the dasher boards, it underscored the fact we were witnessing something very unique.
Our group had two different sets of seats, one in the lower level and one in the upper level, and the rink was situated horizontally just “north” of the pitcher’s mound between first and third base. We checked out both and discovered that Wrigley was meting out some sort of rough justice for the event. The vantage point of our lower section seats was not great, but the wind was almost entirely blocked. The view from the upper section was outstanding, but you were fully exposed to the wind. We talked about switching at some point, but, curiously, the warmer, lower section group never followed through on the seat switching notion.
The pregame ceremony was one for the ages. Chicago sports legends were introduced. The players emerged from the dugouts to a loud ovation that grew as the anthem was sung by Wayne Messmer (who, in my opinion, sings the anthem for hockey purposes better than any human on the planet), fireworks were set off and two F-16s buzzed the stadium in a flyover. Can’t say that I’ve ever experienced a pregame quite like that. That was all followed by a “made-for-TV” card stunt where every fan was instructed to hold cards up at a certain time. This resulted in a message being reflected for view from above. As it turned out, one side of the stadium was holding cards spelling “Blackhawks” and the other side were holding cards spelling “Red Wings.” When Blackhawks fans realized they were holding cards spelling out “Red Wings,” well, let’s just say the card stunt came to a quick end.
The game itself was only slightly outdone by the incredible atmosphere. This was a very entertaining hockey game. The Hawks jumped out quickly. In the opening minutes, Brent Seabrook laid out Dan Cleary with a check that sent him over the boards and into the Chicago bench, which brought a huge roar. Before long, the hometown fans found themselves enjoying a 3-1 lead and all the chanting rights that go along with it. Detroit answered with five unanswered goals and the center of chanting power had shifted. When the game ended with the Wings prevailing 6-4, Blackhawks fans were only a bit downbeat.
Anyone who attended this event had the clear sense that they had witnessed something memorable. Hockey at Wrigley. Go figure.
The Wild contingent grabbed a cab back to Midway airport, plotting and scheming and hoping about the State of Hockey’s eventual day in the outdoor spotlight.