NHL's Winter Classic: A real game, but still a surreal experience | Bleader

NHL's Winter Classic: A real game, but still a surreal experience


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The NHL's Winter Classic, played at Wrigley Field on New Year's Day, turned out to be a real game, better than almost anyone could have expected, but the play was perhaps too rooted in reality -- and the dominant Detroit Red Wings' precision team play -- while the setting was magical to the point of being ridiculous. As expected, the seats closest to the action in baseball tended to have the worst view of the hockey rink. The first several rows couldn't see over the boards to find the puck, so those fans stood throughout, meaning all those behind them in the lower grandstand had to stand as well to see over them. The only exceptions were the privileged nabobs and high muckety mucks in what would usually be the best seats in the house, behind home plate. They sat down throughout. Yet everyone else was standing and shouting, and the upper deck, which allowed perhaps the best view of the action and the ever-shifting patterns of hockey, was rapt, as were the bleachers. That was the event in a nutshell: a little bit kooky, a bit of a square peg in a round hole (make that a rectangular rink in a baseball diamond), but the fans were engaged regardless for the sheer novelty. I scooted from empty seat to empty seat, when there were any from people going to the beer stand or the bathroom, and I heard intelligent hockey talk everywhere -- not just about the Blackhawks and Red Wings, but about national teams and coming stars. For all the novelty appeal, this was very much a crowd of aficionados.

Wrigley Field returned the roar to the Blackhawks' national anthem, but thank Hawk organist Frank Pellico for returning "Hava Nigela" to Wrigley Field. A bunch of Cub and Hawk legends -- Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita, Ryne Sandberg, Billy Williams, et al. -- stopped play in the third period to sing "Take Me out to the Hawks Game." Altogether, a memorably festive event.

Yet the hockey, that wasn't so festive. The pumped-up Hawks took a 3-1 lead in the first period on two power-play goals and a determined effort by rarely used Brad Eager, who first forced a one-handed shot on goal, then got the rebound and deked the goalie from behind the net to slip one in the near corner. After the Wings scored early in the second period, however, the Stanley Cup champs were playing downhill. It wasn't pretty, just meat-grinder efficient, as they kept one forward back to pick off Hawk clearing passes, then got the puck to Jiri Hudler, who twice brushed in goals from the corner of the net, where the Hawk defense had forgotten he was there. The only pretty score was the first insurance goal for the Wings, as Pavel Datsyuk split the Hawk defense with the help of a perfect lead pass from Johan Franzen and converted the breakaway. All in all, with back-to-back wins, the Wings established their dominance over the Hawks. Even coach Joel Quenneville admitted it showed his young team how much better they have to get to compete with Detroit and San Jose.

"It's tough for us to sit up here and say how good the Wings are," said the Hawks' Patrick Sharp afterward, "but they're the best team in the league, I think."

For all the pageantry, it had the feel of one of the old meetings between the Bulls and the Detroit Pistons, before the Bulls broke through to win their championships. In short, it was a learning experience, for the fans as well, with the lesson being: once at Wrigley Field was enough.