CHICAGO – Hockey returned to its frozen outdoor roots at Wrigley Field on Wednesday and there wasn’t a complaint to be heard.
A cold spell sent a chill through the city as the Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings each went through their final preparations ahead of the Winter Classic. There was nothing but smiles from the millionaire athletes who donned tuques and neck warmers to go through a practice unlike any other.
“Once you get a little bit frost-bitten out there, then you’re fine,” said Blackhawks defenceman Brian Campbell.
Fortunately, there’s nothing in the weather forecast to suggest that players will need to be treated for frost bite after Thursday’s game (1 p.m. ET). Meteorologists are calling for a high of 2 C during the afternoon with clouds and a slight chance of snow.
The teams each practised for about an hour on Wednesday in temperatures that were much colder than that. Several players wore neck warmers while Red Wings goalies Chris Osgood and Ty Conklin both had a tuque on under their helmets.
Before Detroit finished its afternoon skate, a couple of pylons were placed on the ice to alert players about troublesome patches.
Still, it was nothing unexpected.
“Two teams are going to play on the same sheet of ice,” said Red Wings coach Mike Babcock. “Sometimes the puck’s going to bounce when it shouldn’t – I think that’s part of the event. The bottom line is you’ve got to find a way to get two points.”
The enthusiasm bouncing around Wrigley Field was impossible to ignore on the eve of the game. It’s a welcome feeling for all involved, especially since it comes during a pretty bleak period on the landscape of professional sports.
While the Blackhawks have enjoyed a renaissance in Chicago this season, other hockey markets are struggling in a weak economy. The league’s board of governors heard all about that during a sobering set of meetings earlier this month in Florida.
Against that backdrop, the Winter Classic has emerged as something for the NHL to celebrate. The players, teams and league officials seem totally unified in singing the praises of the event.
Babcock is hoping the game energizes a veteran team that has shown a tendency to fall into a lull this season.
“I can tell you for a group like ours … it’s something to get excited about,” he said. “The National Hockey League is like ‘Groundhog Day.’ What I mean is it wears you out.
“I know when you’ve been through what we’ve been through the last year and a half, it’s something to get excited about.”
This is the third NHL regular-season game that will be played outside.
In 2003, Montreal beat Edmonton at Commonwealth Stadium in a game that saw temperatures drop as low as -20. There was almost no hitting in a fairly sloppy game.
The Buffalo Sabres and Pittsburgh Penguins put on a better show on New Year’s Day last year, when Sidney Crosby delivered a signature moment by scoring the shootout winner while snow fell.
Interestingly, Conklin was in net for both of those games and will start for Detroit on Thursday afternoon. Cristobal Huet will be in goal for the Blackhawks.
The goaltenders face the toughest challenge in games like these, especially if the weather is cold. Another factor that has presented itself here is bright sunlight that peaked above the grandstand on Wednesday and cast large shadows on the ice.
It left Huet hoping the weather forecast for game day was correct.
“I think the clouds are going to be a good things for us,” said Huet. “The weather was pretty good. I think it was a good temperature – nothing too crazy. We have to stay warm.”
There is no shortage of ways to do that – the equipment men for both teams have offered the players warm undergarments and heat will be pumped into the bench during the game.
Other tweaks will be made if the sun shines. The players experimented with different tinted visors during practice and almost all of them wore eye black to reduce the glare off the ice.
“I thought the black stuff helped a little bit,” said Conklin.
The Red Wings expect to welcome captain Nicklas Lidstrom back from an ankle injury while Patrick Kane hopes to play for Chicago after suffering an undisclosed injury on Tuesday night.
No one wants to miss the opporunity to play in this game. The Blackhawks moved into the Chicago Cubs clubhouse on Wednesday while the Red Wings are occupuying the visiting locker-room and face a roughly two-minute walk to the ice surface.
However, it didn’t take Henrik Zetterberg that long because he was so excited that he ran through the tunnel to get a glimpse of the ice surface quicker.
“It’s a pretty awesome arena here,” said Zetterberg, who visited Wrigley Field during his first road trip with the Red Wings in 2002. “Of all the outdoor classics, I think this is the best setup. I think the fans are real close. Tomorrow’s going to be awesome.”
Somewhat lost in the hype around the event is the fact that this is an important divisional game for both teams. Detroit has won all three of its matches against Chicago this season – including a 4-0 victory on Tuesday night – and holds a six-point advantage in the Central Division standings.
There is likely to be a bit more pressure on a young Chicago team that will play at home in front of 41,000 fans.
“We’ve got a statement to make here,” said Kane. “We think we’re this great team and they beat us pretty good last night.”