Wednesday, July 16, 2008

It's official: Chicago to host next Winter Classic

After a May 29th report out of the Chicago Tribune surfaced about the possibility the Chicago Blackhawks would emerge as the frontrunner to host the second Winter Classic in National Hockey League history, that speculation became fact earlier today.

The NHL and the Blackhawks announced that Wrigley Field would be the site of the next outdoor regular season game on January 1, 2009. Who would the Blackhawks play in the dead of winter? None other than the recently crowned Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings.

Given the long-standing Original Six rivalry between these proud franchises, it is only fitting they are to meet in this significant hockey game. With the Red Wings fresh off their championship victory last month and the Blackhawks certainly ready to make the next step toward earning their first playoff berth in seven seasons, this is as perfect of a time as any for them to play an outdoor game for the world to see.

With the success of the first Winter Classic just 7½ months ago between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Buffalo Sabres at Ralph Wilson Stadium in suburban Buffalo, there is no doubt the Blackhawks want to take advantage of the opportunity given to them.

"We have said from the start we are going to do everything possible to bring the Chicago Blackhawks back to the forefront of sports for our fans and the city of Chicago," Blackhawks chairman W. Rockwell "Rocky" Wirtz said in a team press release. "This is indeed an historic announcement for the Wirtz Corporation, the Chicago Blackhawks, for our players, fans and for Chicago."

Many in the sports world know that Wrigley Field is an historic venue. Home to Major League Baseball's Chicago Cubs, it is one of the last old ballparks still in operation. Completed in 1914, it was originally called Weeghman Park and cost just $250,000 to build. Stadium lights weren't even added until its first night game on August 8, 1988 against the Philadelphia Phillies. From the intimacy of its size to the ivy covered outfield brick walls to the crazy bleacher creatures to the fan accessibility of being able to catch a home run ball beyond the ballpark's outer walls of the outfield on Waveland Avenue, Wrigley Field is a landmark treasure in Chicago.

Instead of a Cubs team that hasn't won a World Series in 100 years roaming the outfield grass and dirt infield, an ice rink will be installed just as it was at Ralph Wilson Stadium last season. There won't be as many fans this time around given the venue size and that it isn't a football stadium. But it sure will be an event Chicagoans will remember for a lifetime.

"Never in my 24 years with the Cubs did I envision a hockey rink in the middle of the field," Blackhawks president John McDonough said to Tim Sassone of The Daily Herald.

McDonough had worked for the Cubs prior to joining the Blackhawks' front office and he had discussions with Cubs chairman Crane Kenney back in February about the idea of hosting the next NHL outdoor game.

"I had serious dialogue with the Cubs, and after talking to Crane Kenney I got a sense that this was going to become a reality," McDonough added. "This is a chance to play in America's most beautiful ballpark in the middle of winter and a lot of people probably have never seen how beautiful Wrigley Field looks in winter. This is going to be a holiday card for NBC, the city of Chicago and the Blackhawks."

Like last season's game, the NHL plans to have NBC televise the second Winter Classic nationally in the United States while CBC and RDS will show the game for Canadian viewers.

Their winter weather can be brutal as it can be in Buffalo. Will Mother Nature help make it a winter wonderland in the middle of an urban setting? Wrigley Field sits on a city block and there isn't room for tailgating like there was in Orchard Park, New York. It certainly is possible snow will be on the ground and hopefully for proud Blackhawks fans and even Red Wings fans who plan to make the trip to America's third largest city, history will repeat itself. Only this time, the locals hope it's the home team that wins. Sidney Crosby sent Sabres fans home heartbroken last time around when he scored the shootout winning goal in a 2-1 Pittsburgh victory.

Newly signed Blackhawks defenseman Brian Campbell offered his thoughts to Chicago Tribune hockey writer Chris Kuc of what he thinks an outdoor game will do for Chicago. Campbell participated in last season's event as a member of the Buffalo Sabres.

"In Buffalo it was an amazing thing," Campbell said. "With the snow and the weather the way it was. The buzz in the city was all wrapped around that. It's a lot of fun for the players on both sides to be involved in. You're going to look back in years to come and know you're going to be involved in it. It's something people get excited about."

The Blackhawks originally were looking at nearby Soldier Field to be site of this game, but staging it there could cause the risk of a scheduling conflict with a potential Chicago Bears home playoff game on January 3rd. So discussions turned toward Wrigley Field hosting the game instead.

But Chicago was not the original choice to host the second Winter Classic. The NHL were in lengthy discussions with New York City officials and New York Yankees brass to attempt having the New York Rangers host the game at an even more historic baseball cathedral than Wrigley Field.

The current Yankee Stadium is set to close at the end of this Major League Baseball season. But logistical issues stood in the way of making those plans work. Scheduled demolition of that historic ballpark that has stood since 1923 would have had to be delayed two extra months. As a result, it would have significantly cut down that window of time allotted during next winter to prepare the surrounding area of the new Yankee Stadium next door and be done in time for the start of the 2009 Major League Baseball season.

At the same time, the current Yankee Stadium that has been in operation for 85 years (its lifespan was extended thanks to a massive renovation in the mid 1970s) has not hosted a major event since the New York Giants moved out of the venue in 1973. Winterizing the piping system would've been needed so that roughly 60,000 fans would be able to use the restrooms.

All this proved to be too costly for the city and the Yankees, so the NHL decided the price was too high to pay for the event at least this season. But there is hope for New York City sports fans and especially beloved Rangers fans. They may get their chance to go to such an event after all. According to New York Daily News hockey writer John Dellapina, all parties involved have agreed to continue pursuing a future Winter Classic at the new Yankee Stadium and it may happen as early as January 1, 2010.

But for now, all eyes will focus on Chicago. The Blackhawks host the Red Wings in what should be another showcase event for the NHL. Seeing Wrigley Field covered with snow and packed with enthusiatic fans watching these two teams play a regular season hockey game in the bitter cold of Chicago winter weather, you couldn't ask for anything more.

A formal news conference is scheduled for July 22nd at 12:00 PM Eastern Daylight Time and will be carried live from Chicago on the NHL Network.

No comments: