01/01/09 7:26 PM EST
With history comes zeal at Wrigley Field
Fans, players, organizers all a gleeful part of hockey at baseball mecca
By Nick Zaccardi / MLB.com
The home team lost the NHL's Winter Classic in heartbreaking fashion, as the Chicago Blackhawks, who led by two goals after the first period, gave up five straight goals to the Detroit Red Wings en route to a 6-4 defeat.
A bundled-up crowd of 40,818 witnessed history at the Majors' second oldest ballpark. Hockey weather presided with temperatures around freezing, overcast skies and a steady but not overpowering wind. The only thing missing was a few snow flurries, but not even the losing team was complaining.
"Just sitting on the bench and looking at the whole crowd, the whole atmosphere, it was really unreal," Blackhawks right winger Patrick Kane said. "It was like it wasn't really happening."
Pregame festivities included a tribute to Blackhawks and Cubs legends followed by one of the most boisterous national anthems you'll hear at a ballpark. As advertised, the players emerged from the dugouts to get to the rink. Seeing it was surreal. Living it was nearly indescribable.
"Coming out of the dugout and seeing the sight, it was pretty cool," said Red Wings defenseman Brett Lebda, who grew up a Cubs fan in suburban Buffalo Grove and scored a goal Thursday. "You're usually on the other side of the fence there sitting in the stands."
Once the game got going, players said it felt like any other indoor game, until they looked around during breaks.
"You see the fans out there, they're all into it," Kane said. "After 3-1, the place seemed to be rocking."
The volume lowered with each Red Wings goal in the final two periods. Bleacher bums heaved not baseballs, but pucks onto the field after opposing scores. There weren't many, if any, octopus sightings. Detroit fans are renowned for splattering the sea creatures onto the ice after Red Wings goals, but even Kosuke Fukudome would have had trouble getting one from the Wrigley stands to the ice.
"I sized it up, it was too far [away to throw onto the ice]," said Michigan native Jim Ritten, who had a bleacher seat. "I haven't seen any [octopuses]. I haven't smelled any."
|"It does get me excited for Opening Day. The first couple weeks of the season that you come here, you're dressed like this. So this is kind of a tease."|
|-- Chicagoan Matt Liston|
"We were kind of wondering if that was going to happen," said Red Wings center Kris Draper, one of a few players who played pickup soccer in front of fans at a concourse concession stand before the game. "Everything about this day and this game was a great feeling. How can you be at Wrigley Field and have an event going on and not sing that song?"
Organizers went to great measures to mix the two sports, including configuring the old-style scoreboard for hockey use. For the fans, it was tough to compare the event to anything they had been a part of before.
"I have been here for playoff baseball games, it's a different buzz," said Matt Liston, 34, a Chicagoan.
What was so different about it?
"The weather," said Cubs fan Ryan Czupek, also 34.
On a day of worldwide new beginnings, perhaps this unique event helped Cubs fans get over the 2008 heartbreak and start looking forward.
"It does get me excited for Opening Day," said Liston, looking ahead to April 6 at Houston and the home opener against Colorado on April 13. "The first couple weeks of the season that you come here, you're dressed like this. So this is kind of a tease."
On New Year's Day 2010, another MLB field could be hosting a hockey game.
Afterward, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman was mum on the future of the Winter Classic and where the next outdoor game would be played.
But, Bettman seems to prefer baseball venues over football stadiums. Since many MLB fields are not in use after October, it gives the NHL more time to set up than with football stadiums, which may be in use throughout December. Playing at the NFL's Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo, N.Y., last year, the crew finished its setup three hours before deadline.
"We cut it too close [in Buffalo]," Bettman said. "Being in a baseball stadium gives us an advantage of more time, and, with the benefit of more time, we were able to do a much better job constructing the rink."
The old Yankee Stadium was the other finalist for this year's game. Early speculation for 2010 has surfaced the new Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park as favorites. It's way too early to tell, though, since Wrigley wasn't officially chosen until July.
"It won't be a perfect science," Bettman said, "but hopefully when we make the decision it will turn out, like this, to be a good decision."
Nick Zaccardi is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.