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You know the old line about "I went to a fight and a hockey game broke out?" Well, I went to a publicity stunt and an actual sporting event broke out.
In only its second year, the National Hockey League's Winter Classic has become a highly successful publicity stunt. Last year, the Buffalo Sabres played host to the Pittsburgh Penguins in a New Year's Day game outdoors in a football stadium -- and in a near-blizzard. This year, as every Chicagoan is already well aware, it will be played at Wrigley Field with the Blackhawks taking on the Detroit Red Wings. It's mainly a way for the NHL and NBC to drop the puck on their NHL "Game of the Week" series, and the Hawks likewise have used it as the centerpiece of president John McDonough's aggressive marketing strategy, ballyhooing the arrival of the rink, the arrival of the Zamboni, and every other detail imaginable.
Wednesday's practice session for the two teams suggested it's going to be a festive curiosity. With rock salt spread throughout the stadium, and faux bricks around the rink (and in front of the outfield wall, actually, the better to allow for ads that might have been lost against the real bricks and dead ivy), Wrigley was decked out for hockey. The thwack of puck against glass made a very satisfactory report that echoed off the grandstand, reminding me of the time I heard a similar crash when Dick Butkus and Les Josephsen of the Los Angeles Rams met helmet-to-helmet in a Bears game played at Wrigley, a treasured childhood memory of mine. Although it seemed obvious the nearer seats, lower in the grandstand, would not give a view of the puck behind the boards, and there were only two giant-screen TVs set up in the outfield corners to give those fans a view of the action, it seemed it would still be a grand occasion for all lucky enough to attend.
Yet as the game approached it also turned into an actual grudge match, befitting the longtime rivalry between the Hawks and Wings. The Wings are the defending NHL Stanley Cup champions, and their fans have been lording it over the Hawks for years. Yet the Hawks have revived behind McDonough and new owner Rocky Wirtz, as well as new young stars Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. The Hawks won nine in a row and were chasing down Detroit before the Wings won the 700th meeting between the two teams at old Joe Louis Arena Tuesday night. After the Wings weathered a couple of early penalties, they pretty much dominated the Hawks, and even Kane admitted he and his teammates "maybe got manhandled ," as he got clobbered by former Hawk Dan Cleary and never really got back in the game. "We think we're this great team," he said, "and they beat us pretty good."
"It's been hyped up," Toews admitted of the Winter Classic after Wednesday's practice, but he made it clear it was just another important game to him and the Hawks after "last night we weren't happy about giving one away."
Defenseman Brian Campbell, who played in last year's Classic for the Sabres, said he was expecting more actual hockey and less pageantry this year. "It'll be a hard-hitting game," he said. "It's gonna be like a playoff game, I think. Guys are pretty revved up for it."
That playoff metaphor was echoed by coach Joel Quenneville. "They played with that Game Seven mentality," he said of the Wings, "and that's how we have to approach it."
So the Friendly Confines may not be so friendly tomorrow, and a publicity stunt might actually turn into something genuinely compelling.