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On The Winter Classic

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This is all you need to know about the atmosphere at Wrigley Field on Thursday: even the Blackhawk fans were being nice. They graciously alternated with the Red Wings fans. The Wings fans would chant "LET'S GO RED WINGS!" and then the Hawks fans would call out "DETROIT SUCKS!"

And people say compassion is dead.

 

I went up on the day before (after I wrote this post) because I knew it was going to be sunny and I wanted to take some pictures of the ballpark. As I waited for the inbound Metra train, I offered my help to a group of moms and their daughters for photos. I asked them what they were going to do downtown.

"We have no idea. Do you know if there's anything going on?"

I told them that I was going to the Winter Classic Fanfest up at Wrigley. This interested them.

The next thing I knew, I became Joe The Tour Guide to three moms, one of their moms, and six kids, taking them from Union Station to the Red Line up to Addison. They had the big inflatable jerseys, you could take your picture in a cutout. They had a big screen showing the practices taking place inside. There wasn't much, but they were having fun.

We went down Clark to the Salt and Pepper diner, where we piled in to have lunch and talk some more. The kids wanted t-shirts and other Winter Classic apparel, so we walked to a couple of the souvenir shops for trinkets.

As the day wound down, we walked back to the Red Line, took it back to Union Station, and rode back out to Hinsdale. I had a blast. They had a blast. And they were going to watch the game tomorrow, if only to look for Joe The Tour Guide.

Now all Gary Bettmann has to do is repeat that in every mass transit depot in America, and the league will be all set.

 

The ballpark looked magnificent. The Wings players were warming up in the concourse: a moment that was so absurdly wonderful that the fans were lined up six deep watching this. When Christy, my wife, and I went up the stairs on the concourse and saw the rink and the scoreboard and everything...it was breathtaking. They couldn't have done it any better.

We went up to the upper deck, and the view was even more magnificent, a reminder of why Wrigley Field is such a magical place. The fans slowly filed in.

The anthems were incredible. They played both. It's very odd to hear 41,000 people sing O Canada. And then...

The Star Spangled Banner at a Blackhawks game is a very unique moment: Everyone stands and cheers. They don't sing. It's loud, it's patriotic, it's magical. If you ever want to get tears in your eyes, check out the video of the 1991 NHL All-Star Game, played in Chicago right after the start of the first Iraq War, with Wayne Messmer singing. It is an incredible two minutes of emotion and patriotism.

Now picture twice the crowd. And a military flyover. And pyrotechnics.

I don't know how it looked or sounded on TV. But it was awesome in person.

 

As for the game itself: the poor Blackhawks were under the mistaken impression that they were only playing one period instead of three. Because they *owned* the first twenty. When Dan Cleary went into the Blackhawks bench, that building erupted. As my wife's cousin texted me, "You guys should feel free to keep taking penalties. It's fantastic." It was a bit of a struggle from our seats to see if the puck went in the net, so there was often a delay from when the puck went in and the crowd reacting, especially in the lower deck.

When the first intermission arrived, the real fun began: trying to use the facilities and get back in time for the start of the second. Unfortunately, I failed, missing the second Wings goal. The ice seemed a little chippy in the first, but the rest of the game it settled down nicely. The Wings turned it up after the first, and the Hawks seemed gassed. When Pavel Datsuyk scored to make it 4-3, it was lights out for the Blackhawks, and the Wings fans erupted.

At the final horn, they had the nice gesture of having both teams shake hands at center ice. A surprising number of Blackhawk fans left early (Hello? Incredible moment here! Why not stick around?) We stuck around until both teams cleared the ice. After picking up one last souvenir, we stepped out Gate D. The Harry Caray statue stood there. He would've loved this.

 

Where everyone goes from here:

The Red Wings have to feel confident taking the home and home. Yes, Mike Babcock, we know they haven't played a solid 60 minutes all season, and we know you'll keep on them, but while they not be firing on all eight cylinders, they're at seven now.

Delightfully enough, we're at the same place we were last year with two very good goaltenders: a 1A and 1B if you will.

The Blackhawks had their coming out party to the country, and they laid an egg. They may need to dial back the "we're gonna go deep into the playoffs" talk, but for the first time in a while, Hawks season ticket holders have to come up with cash for April games, and that's not a bad thing.

More importantly, the Blackhawks have their groove back. Someone brought a "Rocky Wirtz For Governor" sign, and I have no doubt he could have it if he wanted it. In Chicago, the Blackhawks are really the number two or three team in this town behind the Cubs and maybe the Bears. If the Hawks at some point make it back to the Cup finals, it will be a glorious day.

The Winter Classic has gone swimmingly both this year and last. If you want to count the Edmonton game from 2003, it's three-for-three. Give full credit to the NHL and (forgive me for typing this) Gary Bettman and his staff for pulling these things off as well as they have. And the preliminary TV rating actually exceeded last year (2.9 v 2.6). If ever there was evidence that the NCAA has royally screwed up college football with the BCS, it's this: New Year's Day, which had always been about bowl games, is now looking to be more about hockey!

Bettman has always said that he's not committed to doing this annually, and (again, I can't believe I'm typing this) I agree with him. Stu Hackel wrote yesterday afternoon about the idea of a rematch at Comerica Park, and while I don't know Mr. Hackel, I would invite him to take some of my Celexa, because that's bad crazy. Wrigley has one massive advantage that no other MLB ballpark in use has: the upper deck overhang that made the 400 and 500 levels pitch (no pun intended) perfect. The upper decks at every other MLB park are set so far back that you'd feel like you're in another ZIP Code. This thing doesn't have the legs yet to support a football stadium unless you put it in a real hockey hotbed. The shine will come off this thing really quickly if you put it someplace where you have 15,000 empty seats.

Do I think there will be an outdoor game in the Detroit area anytime soon? Nope. The only place to play it would be Michigan Stadium, and re-read the idea of having 15,000 empty seats (unless they want to sell a lot of the seats for a really low price, and the cheapest seats at Wrigley were $75).

It was a great day for hockey. A great day for Chicago. And as the scoreboard showed, a great day for the Red Wings.