CHICAGO – There are signs all around Wrigley Field that suggest the NHL is about to hit a home run with the Winter Classic.
You have people lining up at a makeshift stand in front of the stadium to purchase official merchandise two days before puck drop. You have ice guru Dan Craig predicting a fast game on a superior surface to the one he created in Buffalo last year. You have none other than Blackhawks legend Stan Mikita talking about being unable to deliver on several ticket requests.
And perhaps the biggest statement of all came from longtime NFL executive John Collins, who thinks the atmosphere around the outdoor game is starting to remind him of the Super Bowl and Pro Bowl.
“It feels like those events,” said Collins, now the NHL’s chief operating officer. “The hype, the coverage, the interest – and not just on the media or fan base, but also within the corporate marketplace.
“It feels at that level.”
Even with the Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings both out of the city on Tuesday for the first of a home-and-home series at Joe Louis Arena, the buzz was already building. The teams will each practice Wednesday on the makeshift ice at Wrigley Field before facing one another Thursday afternoon (1 p.m. ET).
Preparations are well on the way to ensuring the event is a success.
The weather forecast includes the chance of snow flurries the next couple nights as well as on New Year’s Day. The league started preparing the ice surface on Dec. 15 and feels as though it’s well ahead of the schedule it was on a year ago at Ralph Wilson Stadium, when it had a much tighter timeframe to prepare.
After taking a quick skate around the surface, Craig issued a playful warning to the roughly 41,000 people who will attend the Winter Classic.
“You better put a seatbelt on your seat,” he said. “I think we’ll have one fast, tough game.”
The toughest thing for fans to do so far has been getting their hands on one of the coveted tickets. More than 240,000 people entered a lottery for the right to buy some.
Those lucky enough to get picked chose from a seating chart that is opposite to what they’re accustomed to with Cubs tickets – the most expensive seats are in the upper deck while the front rows came cheaper because the play will be tougher to follow from them.
The sightlines in the stadium shouldn’t actually be too bad. The ice surface runs across the infield from first to third base and fits quite nicely into the 94-year-old stadium.
“It looks a lot better in person than it does on paper,” said Collins.
The league’s third outdoor game will be looking to build on the tradition that was first started in Edmonton in 2003 and rekindled in Buffalo last New Year’s Day.
One of the most important differences will go largely unseen by fans. The NHL purchased a mobile refrigeration truck that uses state-of-the-art equipment to help ensure the ice is at a standard that befits a regular season game.
The arena boards are also new and can be moved around.
That the league was willing to make those investments is a sure sign that it plans to continue holding games at non-traditional venues. There will be no shortage of places to choose from.
“We’ve got significant interest from a number of clubs and a number of markets in wanting to do this next,” said Collins. “While we haven’t spent a lot of time right now thinking about where we go after Chicago, I think there’s a lot of options. …
“I think the model is kind of set in terms of what we can do.”
The Blackhawks plan to put some of their own spin on things. Seven sports legends from the city – including Mikita and former Cubs pitcher Fergie Jenkins of Chatham, Ont. – will be honoured prior to the game.
Mikita stopped by Wrigley on Tuesday to check out the ice and chat with reporters. He purchased 13 tickets to the game at US$225 apiece and earmarked them for family members – leaving everyone else out of luck.
“I got a lot of phone calls regarding tickets,” said Mikita. “When a thing like this comes along you never know how many friends you had.
“Unfortunately I had to turn them down.”
This promises to be a pretty important event for the league.
Even though it will only be the second Winter Classic ever held, there’s already a feel of permanence to the event. Last year’s game drew the highest U.S. television ratings the NHL had received in a decade.
It also connected with people in a way that the league is rarely able to do. That’s something the executives hope will continue to happen.
“The real key ingredient is how the NHL uniquely brings friends and families together on this day,” said Collins. “That’s really what the power of this event is no matter where we play it next time. …
“We’re really trying to celebrate this emotional connection that hockey fans have to the game and show that in a way that general sports fans maybe haven’t had a chance to see.”
It’s also a chance to prove that the outdoor game format isn’t a gimmick.
“This is not an exhibition game, this is not a pre-season game, this is not an all-star game,” said Collins. “It’s the real deal.”