January 01, 2009

Happy New Years From Wrigley Field

Kicking off New Year's Day for hockey fans means the arrival of the Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic. This year the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks face-off at Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs. Will there be a special 7th inning stretch?

This game features two Original Six franchises. In fact, this will be the 701st meeting between the two storied clubs, the most matches between any two franchises in NHL history.

Each team will be sporting special retro uniforms in what promises to be a very intriguing clash. Detroit has long been very successful with their veteran lineups. The much maligned Hawks are now emerging as a promising NHL powerhouse, thanks to a tightly knit blend of youth and talent.

Will the game prove to be as good as 2008, when the game's biggest name player was put on display in a classic and snowy affair. With the spotlight upon him, Sidney Crosby's game winning shoot out goal will be frozen in time. The Pittsburgh Penguins defeated the Buffalo Sabres 2-1 in a shootout in front of over 71,000 fans outdoors at Ralph Wilson Stadium, home of the NFL's Buffalo Bills.

Crews have been at work preparing Wrigley Field. Be sure to check out this time lapse video of the transformation. As many as 41,00 fans are expected to attend, with the game also televised on CBC, RDS and NBC at 1pm EST.

The weather forecast suggests pretty reasonable temperatures, with slim possibilities of precipitation. Snow would be no big deal, but rain would be an interesting problem, with possible extended stoppages of play for Zamboni cleanings should the rain amount to anything substantial.

Sunshine is also a possibility, which could create other problems for players. Sun bouncing off the ice could certainly distract a player who is not used to such lighting. Some players may wear black war paint or even tinted visors.

At least it appears the league will not have to deal with the extreme cold featured in the first NHL game played outdoors. Back in 2003 Montreal and Edmonton faced off in bitter cold and chilling winds on the fields of Edmonton's Commonwealth Stadium. The Heritage Classic saw 57,167 fans brave -19 C temperatures to witness a great day of hockey.

Perhaps the NHL game that night was upstaged by the Legends games between Montreal and Edmonton. It was Wayne Gretzky's only exhibition game played after retirement. It was a great moment to see #99 back in Edmonton wearing a blue and copper Oilers jersey.

One thing is for sure - outdoor memories last a lifetime. Aside from Gretzky's return, who can forget Jose Theodore's toque atop his goalie mask, or Legends like Guy Lafleur shoveling the snow off of the ice between periods, or the military flyover before the Legends game. Oh yeah, Montreal won that game 4-3, thanks to a game winning goal from Richard Zednik.

Other notable outdoor games include the Red Square game in Moscow on Dec 9th, 2006 and The Cold War college game featuring Michigan State vs Michigan at Spartan Stadium on October 6th, 2001.

The Moscow game featured retired NHL and Russian legends playing to commemorate 60 years of Russian hockey, the 50th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s first Olympic victory in hockey, and the 25th anniversary of the famed KLM Line of Igor Larionov, Sergei Makarov, and Vladimir Krutov, plus defensemen Fetisov and Alexei Kasatonov. With Lenin’s Mausoleum and an illuminated Kremlin in the background, seating for only about 2000 fans could be arranged. The game, a 10-10 tie, raised money for Russian charities.

The collegiate game featured to arch rival schools playing before 74,554 fans. The game, which started with a ceremonial face off featuring Gordie Howe, ended in a 3-3 tie. Michigan's Mike Cammalleri scored twice. Interestingly, the goalie for Michigan State that night was Ryan Miller. Of course Miller is expected to be Buffalo's goalie for the upcoming Winter Classic.

Other outdoor games of note include The Frozen Tundra Classic, played in 2006, which pitted the University of Wisconsin against Ohio State at the legendary Lambeau Field. 40,890 fans saw the Badgers beat the Buckeyes 4-2.

Also, the Los Angeles Kings and New York Rangers played outdoors in a 1991 pre-season exhibition game outside of Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas, Nevada. Unlike the other games, cold was not a factor but heat and humidity was. It was in the mid 80's F that night. In fact, the NHL was so worried about the ice that they spent $135,000 on refrigeration costs, including 22 miles of refrigeration tubing, only to make the ice so hard that it cracked in many places, forcing a last minute warming of the ice! An insect infestation also troubled players and 13,000 fans. Wayne Gretzky's Kings won 5-2.

And a 1957 World Championship game between the Soviet Union and Sweden played at Lenin Stadium in Moscow. North Americans may best remember Lenin Stadium for the Moscow Music Peace Festival in 1989 featuring Bon Jovi, Ozzy Osborne and Motley Crue!

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