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nhl winter classic, winter classic, winter classic Wrigley field
Charles Rex Arbogast/AP
Workers continue to construct an ice rink Thursday, Dec. 18, 2008, inside Wrigley Field for the
NHL's Winter Classic outdoor hockey game. (AP)

NHL Set to Drop the Puck at Wrigley

December 31, 2008 04:28 PM
by Denis Cummings
On New Year’s Day, the Blackhawks and Red Wings will play outdoors at Wrigley Field, just the third outdoor regular-season game in NHL history.

Winter Classic to Be Held at Wrigley Field on Thursday

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In the NHL’s second “Winter Classic,” the Chicago Blackhawks will host the Detroit Red Wings at Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs since 1916. It will be the third time that a regular-season NHL game is played outside, following a 2003 game and last year’s inaugural Winter Classic.

This will be a day to remember … one of the greatest days in Chicago sports history,” said Blackhawks legend Bobby Hull. “I just wish I could have played in one of these when I was in my prime. This has brought a new dimension to the NHL, and every year there should be a game like this played.”

Construction of the rink began on Dec. 16, when the NHL’s 53-foot-long refrigeration trailer arrived at Wrigley with rink-building equipment. The ice crew, a 400-man team led by ice expert Dan Craig, spent the last two weeks assembling the rink and laying down the ice, working through sub-zero temperatures, record-high temperatures and even a tornado watch.

Craig believes that the ice on Thursday will be superior to the ice for the NHL’s previous two outdoor games because of new equipment purchased by the NHL. Game-time temperature is predicted to be around 25 degrees, which is cold enough for the ice to remain hard, but warm enough so that it doesn’t become brittle.

The on-ice temperature will feel colder due to winds of roughly 20 mph; the teams will switch sides at the halfway point of the third period so that neither team has an advantage. The forecast also calls for light snow to begin falling late in the game.

The 200-foot-long rink runs between 3rd base and 1st base on the Wrigley Field diamond, with center ice positioned 112 feet from home plate. The setup means that few of the stadium’s 40,000 seats will provide a good look at the game, but the tickets—which range from $75 to $325—were sold out soon after going on sale.

“Hawks president John McDonough predicted months ago that the Winter Classic might be the toughest regular-season ticket in Chicago sports history, and it appears he was right,” writes the Chicago Sun-Times.

The hype surrounding the game follows last year’s wildly successful Winter Classic in Buffalo’s Ralph Wilson Stadium. Over 71,000 fans watched the Sabres and Penguins play through a snowstorm, as Sidney Crosby—the league’s most marketable star—scored the winning goal in a shootout. The game drew the largest television rating in decades for an NHL regular season game and the league said it might make the Winter Classic a yearly event.

The NHL, which struggles to attract a large U.S. television audience even for the Stanley Cup Final, hopes that the Winter Classic can appeal to even those who don’t care about hockey.

“The delightful part about the Winter Classic is that you don’t have to be a hockey fan to enjoy it,” writes Kevin Dupont for NBC Sports. “If it snows—and let’s hope it does—it makes not only for a more interesting and challenging game because of the ‘slower’ ice, but it also makes for just a better overall look. And as we all now, TV is all about look.”

Background: History of outdoor hockey

Though many players grew up playing on outdoor ponds, outdoor high-level hockey games were a rare event in the 20th century. Perhaps the most famous was the 1957 final of the World Championships, played before 55,000 in Moscow’s Lenin Stadium.

The NHL held an exhibition game in 1991 at the Caesars Palace outdoor arena in Las Vegas, where the Rangers and Kings skated in 85-degree weather. “For all the hockey derring-do Friday night,” wrote The New York Times, “the exhibition game seemed more an engineering feat than an athletic achievement.”

The game attracted only minor coverage, and no other prominent outdoor games were held until 2001, when Michigan State University decided to hold a game against archrival Michigan in its football stadium. The game attracted 74,554 fans and demonstrated the widespread appeal and marketing possibilities of outdoor games.

“This could be a breakthrough game for the sport of hockey,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson. “But it’s also a throwback game for the older people in the crowd. And it’s good for the young guys to experience playing outdoors. This was the best of everything. The crowd. The rink. The competition. The importance of the game. It had all the ingredients of a great game and it was.”

The Cold War inspired the Edmonton Oilers to play outdoors two years later against the Montreal Canadiens. The “Heritage Classic,” which also included a pregame exhibition between retired Oilers and Canadiens, was played in sub-zero temperatures before 57,000 fans. The game, most remembered for the sight of Montreal goaltender Jose Theodore wearing a knit cap over his helmet, proved that the NHL could effectively hold outdoor games.

A second NCAA game was played outdoors at Green Bay’s Lambeau Field in 2006, and Swiss club Bern hosted an outdoor game in 2007. The NHL held a second outdoor game on New Year’s Day 2008, which it dubbed the “Winter Classic.” The Winter Classic may become a yearly event, as the NHL examines football and baseball stadiums throughout North America to hold a game.

There are also plans for an outdoor game in Sweden and an indoor game played in a retractable-roof soccer stadium in Germany. That game, the opening game of the 2010 International Ice Hockey Federation World Championships, has a planned capacity of 75,976, meaning that it could break the attendance record set by Michigan-Michigan State.

Reference: Winter Classic

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