Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=231378
Story Retrieval Date: 4/17/2015 11:13:12 AM CST

Top Stories
Features
Solider Field NHL Main

Brian Ayala/MEDILL

A March 1 snow storm offered fans one of the most memorable hockey games Chicago has ever seen.


Winter Classic: Blackhawks host picturesque game at Soldier Field

by Mitch Goldich
Mar 3, 2014


Soldier Field NHL Small

Mitch Goldich/MEDILL

The NHL began building the ice rink in Soldier Field 12 days before the game took place.

Three days before what he called as exciting an event as he could remember planning for Soldier Field, the stadium’s director of sponsorship and media couldn’t help but grimace at one question.

An NHL crew labored on the other side of the concourse, preparing an ice rink in the middle of a football field, where the Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins were to do battle on Saturday Night.

Luca Serra chatted excitedly about the event his crew and the NHL were collaborating to produce. But then the conversation turned— as it often does in Chicago — to the weather.

“Hopefully the weather cooperates, and warms up a little bit more,” Serra said. His second sentence didn’t roll out quite as smoothly. “And we don’t get any… snow… knock on wood.”

But Serra must have been either lying or kidding himself, wishing for a clear night. Because snow pelted the outdoor ice surface from the first faceoff to the final whistle. And the result was fantastic.

*****

Professional sports in the United States have exploded in recent years.

Sure, they’ve always been popular. But thanks to additional television channels (and with them added rights contracts and advertising revenues), the rise of social media, the ability to follow games on mobile devices and dozens of other reasons, sports seemed to grow while the majority of industries in the American economy suffered.

But hockey hasn’t been the best investment in the sports portfolio.

In 2013, Forbes wrote that the average NFL franchise was worth $1.17 billion. Major League Baseball’s teams ranked next at $744 million, followed by NBA teams valued at about $509 million per. The same article estimated NHL teams were worth an average of “only” $282 million.

But sometimes when you’re at the bottom, it also forces you to make changes.

Many fans gave up the NHL after a lockout of the players union wiped out the entire 2004-2005 season.

But the loyal fans who remained were given a league with new rules designed to make the game higher-scoring and more exciting. And others have since come crawling back.

In late 2006, as the NHL tried to pick up the pieces in the aftermath of the lockout, another innovation was born— the Winter Classic. Just as the NFL owns Thanksgiving and the NBA has tried to take over Christmas Day, the NHL plotted to put a signature event on a major holiday.

The idea was simple— match up two teams in an outdoor rink on New Years’ Day and immediately create the most anticipated game of the regular season.

The first Winter Classic was on New Year’s Day 2008. The Pittsburgh Penguins took on the Buffalo Sabres at the Buffalo Bills’ home, Ralph Wilson Stadium.

Hockey purists and longtime players got to reminisce about outdoor games played on ponds in their youth. Casual fans tuned in for the novelty of it, and to see what the fuss was about.

And Sidney Crosby, one of the marquee stars of the league, scored the game winning goal during a shootout, with snowflakes falling all around him. It was postcard pretty. An instant classic.

And in sports, instant classics are usually replicated to drive more revenue.

So the league quickly set up round two for the following year at historic Wrigley Field.

*****

“Well certainly Chicago’s a first class sports town,” said Schuyler Baehman, director of communications for the NHL. “It doesn’t take too much to notice that.”

Baehman was speaking not before that New Year’s Day 2009 game at Wrigley Field, but the reboot at Soldier Field on March 1, 2014.

During the five years in between, the Winter Classic grew in popularity. So the 2013-2014 season became the year to expand it. Not just a Winter Classic, but a whole Stadium Series— five games in six cities, including venues like Yankee Stadium and the University of Michigan’s Big House.

Expansion gave more fans a chance to watch, and more players a chance to experience this type of game firsthand. It also gave the league more opportunities to make money off the national broadcast rights and merchandise sales.

And the league does make money— or else it wouldn’t justify spending nearly seven figures to construct a sheet of ice only used once. Serra put the number around seven figures for just the ice alone, before accounting for the cost of renting the facility and paying the stadium crew.

But he was confident the NHL could recoup its investment. In fact, that’s largely why the game was placed in Soldier Field as opposed to making a return trip to Wrigley.

“You can get more people into an NFL football stadium than you can into a baseball stadium,” Serra said. “Those resources… they need to maximize their return on that. And we’re able to pull it off because we can fit more.”

But the games can only remain profitable when the product meets expectations. So the NHL spent months preparing, before it came time to start rink construction.

Twelve days before the game, the NHL crew put down the first level of the rink, which Baehman described as a “layer cake.”

The bottom inch of the rink is ice. Then a layer of white paint, with more ice on top of that. Next comes the detail paint job— the red lines, blue lines, faceoff dots and goalie creases — followed by more ice.

But it’s one thing to build a rink outdoors that approximates the quality found inside an NHL arena. It’s another to maintain it.

Baehman said for a typical Blackhawks home game it would be around 50 or 60 degrees inside the United Center. The weather at Soldier Field was considerably colder during the rink installation, but with the sun also beating down on it.

This is the paradox when trying to keep the ice surface at its ideal temperature, 22 degrees.

“It’s always a concern,” Baehman said. “It keeps [NHL senior director of facilities operations] Dan Craig and his ice crew up all night monitoring the latest shifts in the weather.”

Baehman wasn’t worried about the abuse his ice would take from either the sun or the potential snow.

“We’ve got the best crew in the world to do this kind of thing,” he said. “And we’ve learned a lot since 2008, when we really started to put on a lot of these games.”

But after the New Jersey Devils’ future Hall of Fame goalie Martin Brodeur called the Yankee Stadium ice the worst he’d ever played on, Craig’s crew had to have felt even more pressure.

*****

Saturday night. Game time.

“This is a huge event,” Serra had said earlier that week. “This is not just a regular season game. And the NHL does everything they can to make that experience huge for people.”

An excited buzz lingered over the Museum Campus as fans began flocking toward the football stadium.

Many fans tailgated in the parking lot, grilling brats and chugging beers. Others went inside to the concourse and huddled around the ample warming stations available for fans to stave off the cold.

Bands played on the field pregame and fireworks rocketed into the sky.

Everything was perfect— except for the damn snow. Serra had knocked on wood, but his good luck never came.

Except Serra was wrong all along. The snow was the best thing that possibly could have happened.

The snow seemed to pick up just as the game was getting ready to start. The players came out onto the ice for warmups and got lost in a furious snow globe.

Captain Jonathan Toews grinned, although diminished visibility made it hard for most fans to notice.

Blackhawks fans have a tradition of standing and screaming throughout the entire National Anthem. Unknowing onlookers might have thought they were yelling to keep warm.

When the game started, most fans remained standing. Sitting, it appeared, allowed the snow to pile up. As it was, the snow collected in fleece and hair, as friends brushed each other off and let it avalanche into the aisles.

At a typical game, 21st century fans take their phones out during the first minute. Smartphone pictures posted on social media accounts have become the modern day ticket stub collection.

One at a time, fans removed their gloves, exposing their fingers to frigid temperatures to snap selfies.

Others sheepishly asked strangers to do the same to capture their whole group of friends.

The photo brigade trudged on, as other fans proceeded with a more pressing task. They had to guzzle their beers down quickly because otherwise an inch of snow collected within the plastic cup rims. The normally overpriced Bud Lights were transformed into delightful beer-flavored snow cones.

All along, as some fans showed up in ski goggled and others in futile blankets, they seemed to cackle with bemused delight.

There was no sense in being angry about having to spend three hours in a driving snowstorm. It was too funny not to laugh at the circumstances.

So all the while, the atmosphere remained electric. It was the type of weather that, had you been standing around waiting for a bus, would have been miserable. But it was one of the coolest sporting events many fans had ever seen.

In a season that many argue is too long anyway, during which few games stand out for any particular reason, this game was a lifetime memory. The night sky and crisp air contributed to that feeling, sure. But it was the snow that had everyone talking.

When the game is already a novelty by design, it may as well be as novel as possible.

*****

By the end of the first period, with the Blackhawks ahead 1-0, it seemed like the type of game everybody in attendance would tell their grandchildren about— if they didn’t die of frostbite before the conclusion.

The play itself was sloppy at times, though not when Toews showed his impeccable stickhandling ability by dribbling through a crowd and a snow bank to give the Blackhawks a 2-0 lead in the second period.

By the third period, the Blackhawks had amassed an insurmountable 5-1 lead. Fans sang “Chelsea Dagger” after each goal, like they do in their normal indoor home, and the winning was certainly fun. But the snow was the highlight of the night.

Wrigley Field is one of the most famous venues in sports. Soldier Field is not.

Wrigley finds itself on sports fan bucket lists, and becomes the site of pilgrimages. Soldier Field does not.

But this game was more fun and more memorable than the 2009 game at Wrigley.

Just ask Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville.

“Both you'll never forget,” Quenneville said at his postgame press conference. “Very memorable in a lot of ways. But the snow here at Soldier and that type of a setting, and winning certainly puts everything in place. The first one was a cool game. I thought this was even cooler.”

And the snow was the reason.

“It was a lot of fun,” Toews said in his postgame press conference. “It honestly did feel like we were playing shinny hockey in the backyard.”

Toews added, “We've played in a couple different venues now in Chicago, and it's pretty amazing to think. But this is probably even more so great for the fans.”

*****

The Wednesday before the game, Baehman had said the future of the NHL’s Stadium Series was undetermined. The league had committed to another New Year’s Day Winter Classic in 2015 in Washington D.C.

Beyond that, there was no long-term agenda, or wider slate of games on the calendar.

“Everybody wants to sort of take a look at what gets accomplished this year and make some decisions off of that,” Baehman said.

But if the game Saturday night was any determinant, the decision should have made by the end of the first period.

For the crew at Soldier Field, one of their nightmare scenarios presented itself. But for spectators both on television and inside the slushy stadium, the game was a perfect dream.