CHICAGO – Were Bill Wirtz still alive, the young men bold enough to strip half-naked and parade down Addison Street with painted chests still would have been asleep on New Year's morning. Same goes for the women trying to hide the remnants of the previous night behind sunglasses and the bravest souls, who woke up with a couple Bloody Marys knowing they might cause actions worthy of a couple Hail Marys.
This is not to besmirch the dead. It's simply the truth. Bill Wirtz would have dismissed the NHL's Winter Classic as gimmickry, something worth neither his time nor that of the Chicago Blackhawks he owned, and that's why fans cheered his passing in September 2007 and booed his name at a memorial service held by the team.
Wirtz couldn't have imagined this, the perfect confluence of sport and spectacle, an ice hockey rink dropped smack in the middle of Wrigley Field on New Year's Day with the Detroit Red Wings in town to play a good old-fashioned game of shinny in front of 41,000 icicles masquerading as people and millions more cozy in front of their television sets.
So big would it be that Mayor Richard M. Daley himself would show up, and not just for publicity purposes, Chicago Democrats flailing of late. In Suite 29 at Wrigley, Daley bundled up outside next to the Blackhawks' president, John McDonough, for the game's entirety, trading words of awe, among them: "This is great. This really is. This is so great."
Hyperbole will attach itself to the Winter Classic as it does all mega made-for-TV showcases. What differentiated Thursday's game, a 6-4 shoot-'em-up won by the Red Wings, was the return to roots, both for the players who grew up skating on outdoor rinks and the Blackhawks who crave the respect due an Original Six team after years spent wasting away under Wirtz's care.
He kept all games off local television, refused to dabble in free agency, alienated the organization's greatest players and turned rabid fans apathetic. His name wasn't mud. That would be too clean.
Eye rolls accompanied the announcement that Wirtz's son, Rocky, would take over as principal owner. Another Wirtz seemingly guaranteed another epic Stanley Cup drought, the Blackhawks' current one dating back to 1961.
"He was so highly principled, he chose not to … make certain decisions," Rocky said.
Rocky Wirtz stood in McDonough's suite, trying to find the kind words about his father. He was a brilliant businessman and a giving employer and a horrid hockey owner, and Rocky Wirtz wants to be just like him in the first two respects and nothing like him in the third.
"That doesn't make him wrong and me right," Wirtz said. "I wasn't back there. It's easier for me. I don't have any of that baggage. I didn't approach it like we had the same last name."
Under Rocky, the Blackhawks are the new "It" kids of the NHL. He flirted with McDonough over breakfast one morning and stole him from the Chicago Cubs, where he was president. He put all 41 home games on TV, spent $57 million on defenseman Brian Campbell in free agency, invited Stan Mikita and Tony Esposito back as ambassadors and saw season-ticket sales spike more than 300 percent.
"They just instilled a confidence that they were behind us and would do anything to win," defenseman Brent Seabrook said. "It just filtered on right through. Rocky comes right down. He talks to us all the time, shakes our hands. We're all polite and call him Mr. Wirtz. He wants us to call him Rocky."
Wirtz's first course of business for McDonough was to secure the Winter Classic. Any sort of new regime would provide reason enough for the indifference to end, and the Blackhawks had talent – namely 20-year-old wunderkinds Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews – to boot.
But this? A million-dollar mobile rink shipped from Mobile, Ala., and cloudy skies to set the mood between rivals. Detroit coaches wearing fedoras and Blackhawks coaches wearing letterman jackets. Fans uniformed in hockey sweaters over hooded sweatshirts – new names like Toews and Kane and Datsyuk and Zetterberg, or old ones like Probert and Mikita and Fedorov and Yzerman – with at least two more layers underneath, long underwear, double-layered socks and boots from a cow who'd better have had a thick hide.
Everything loud and outsized – the WWE entry with sparklers and smoke and fire, and the twin-jet flyover, and the fan deciding on her beer by asking for "whatever's bigger," and her companion asking for extra nacho cheese that somehow remained liquefied amid the freeze, and the national anthem from Jim Cornelison during which the fans, as is custom at the United Center, stood and screamed while he belted out every word.
This was what Rocky Wirtz wanted the Blackhawks to be.
"We've piqued their interest," he said. "They're curious. Now we've got to keep selling them. And the only way to sell them is to win. We will. We saw what the standard is, and we have to get there. Just making the playoffs is not good enough. We've got to win the big enchilada."
Wirtz turned to McDonough.
"I went into Detroit's suite and said, 'We are working to get to your level,' " he said.
"That's exactly right," McDonough said.
The Red Wings are defending Stanley Cup champions, a team of awesome talent that can take a 3-1 deficit and rattle off five straight goals as it did Thursday. Detroit has handed the Blackhawks four defeats this season, and the Winter Classic loss did dampen the day's enthusiasm a smidgen.
Still, how the Blackhawks have evolved from just a year ago is enough to sate even the most disaffected fans for a while. It's not just the 20-8-7 record or the atmosphere at the United Center, either. The story of the team attending the funeral of general manager Dale Tallon's father worked the tear ducts of even the most cynical.
Tallon retreated to McDonough's suite after the game and listened to the breakdown by analysts saying the Blackhawks simply aren't ready to compete with Detroit. He gnawed his teeth and pulled a tray of peanuts toward him. He picked at the pile, popping a nut, crunching it, popping another, crunching it, until a Blackhawks employee accidentally swiped them off the table with her coat.
"It's OK to have peanuts on the ground," one passerby said. "We're at Wrigley Field."
They were, though it wasn't really a peanut-and-Cracker Jack day, even if Mikita and Esposito joined Ryne Sandberg and Billy Williams to sing "Take Me Out to the Hockey Game." For all the similarities between the Cubs and Blackhawks beyond geography – namely ineptitude – they are franchises in different places.
The Cubs, so saddled with their history, cannot escape it and won't until they win a championship. The Blackhawks are speeding away from what they were, now invigorated, emboldened and brought back to life by, of all things, death.