Puck Daddy - NHL

Big League Stew editor Kevin Kaduk has been to hundreds of baseball games in Wrigley Field, but like everyone else, he had never seen a hockey game at the corner of Clark and Addison until Thursday afternoon. As a Blackhawks season ticketholder, 'Duk agreed to share his thoughts on the Winter Classic experience in the space below. To sum it up: "It was even better than the time I singlehandedly started a United Center-wide 'Bill Wirtz sucks' chant when the Hawks were eliminated by Colorado in the '97 playoffs!" he said.

It's the day after the Winter Classic and the tributes to hockey at Wrigley Field are starting to pour in. From the true believers in the hockey 'sphere to the MSMers who wouldn't normally know a biscuit from a basket, the fawning over a game played in the middle of the Friendly Confines is reaching the type of stratospheric levels the NHL was aiming for.

Though the aesthetics and result of the Pittsburgh-Buffalo scrape gave the league all the snow it needed for a decent fight, it was Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks that packed it tight, took aim and hit the unenlightened mob smack dab in its kisser. The event has already become as much a part of New Year's Day than mid-morning bloody marys and a Big Ten team taking its beating in Pasadena. If there was any doubt this would become an annual event, it ended the moment when cases for the event coming to new Yankee Stadium in 2010 started being made.

Sure, there are some who will always say the Winter Classic is only made to attract the casual fan and sell thousands of sweaters to goons like me and they're partly right. But here's how I knew the game was/is resonating with those of us who sit in the 300-level seats in the early days of September and the late games of April: On Thursday, when Pavel Datsyuk crossed the blue line and split a revolving defenseman door of Cam Barker and Brian Campbell to give Detroit its highlight of the day, as well as a 4-3 lead, I got mad.

Repeat: Mad. Like really mad. Pissed, even. As the Red Wings stormed their way to five unanswered goals in their 6-4 win, I had the same kind of sinking feeling I felt when Steve Smith torched the Bears in '06 or when the 97-win Cubs were swept by a completely mediocre Dodgers lineup last fall. That the Hawks lost in the same park where the Cubs have never won a World Series wasn't lost on the crowd as we filed back toward the bars.

Out of frustration, I started swearing about the Red Wings. I started swearing about their umpteen Stanley Cups. I started swearing about — and even in the general vicinity of — the legion of fans the Wings had in attendance. (Chicago's dirty secret is that roughly 75 percent of its North Side is made up of Michigan transplants who realized they'd have to live in Detroit if they didn't move down here.)

With the benefit of some sober hindsight and a few hours of sleep, I can realize how dumb my reaction was. Before putting on five layers of clothing underneath my just-in-time-for-Christmas Toews WC jersey, I had reminded myself that the Winter Classic was just another game. Though important in the scheme of the Central Division, only two points were at stake. They weren't going to bring out the Cup at the end of the third period and the Hawks were still going to play 47 games after its completion. And while we do love to a good "Detroit sucks" chant, there isn't a reasonable fan that doesn't view the Wings as the ultimate model the Hawks should hope to become.

In other words, I was pining for a victory, but not pinning the successes of the day on it. 

Of course, all of those reality checks went out the window once I walked east up Addison and saw Wrigley Field warmed up in the midst of a Midwestern winter. For years, I've dragged past the dead park on dreary January days and imagined what it would be like to have an event lighting it up before Opening Day. My neighborhood is comatose during baseball's offseason and so to see the NHL breathe life into it on the first day of 2009 took my own breath away. My initial thought? "They need to have a game here every single year." 

We started the day by tipping a few at Murphy's Bleachers and made some Flames friends from Calgary while doing it. About an hour before puck drop, we entered Wrigley through the left field gate on Waveland and were handed a pair of binoculars to find the missing Reebok logo.The weak lenses turned out to be less than useless in spotting Dustin Byfuglien, but our seats behind home plate in Sec. 220, Row 10, didn't require that we employ them. After two months of fretting that I'd paid $225 to see only the top half of the skaters, it turned out that we had a fantastic view of not only the rink, but Wrigley's iconic scoreboard backdrop. For baseball fans, it's a truth that the first glimpse of Wrigley's green qualifies as a religious experience. Now the same holds true for hockey fans and Wrigley's white. 

After Bob Costas and NBC deemed it OK for us to proceed, we unfurled the big American flag we brought for the National Anthem, screamed so loud that we couldn't hear Jim Cornelison's words and cheered as the jets roared overhead before turning south. (Watch the whole amazing scene here.) Fireworks exploded from somewhere in center field and the crowd's roar turned into a thundering call-and-answer session of "Let's Go Wings! ... Detroit Sucks!"

Two words: Goosebump City. 

And right about there was where the Winter Classic morphed — at least for me — from just another hockey game into a special event on par with the one Super Bowl, three Rose Bowls and six World Series games I've been lucky enough to attend. The NHL just doesn't throw up a rink, toss out a few pucks and assign a few referees for this thing. No, as one of the few things it gets right, the league has committed to making the WC a larger-than-life thrill for everyone involved. From the bricks painted on the outside of the boards to making sure than the rest of the field was covered in snow, the league spared no detail in making the spectacle we wanted to see.

The game finally began after all those months of hype and anticipation and I started to completely convince myself that it was an absolute must-win for the Hawks. I started to believe it would be a victory that could make up for the 10 years that I spent being apathetic toward the Indianhead. I started thinking it was a triumph that would show the entire country that the Hawks were for real. I told someone it was a Bulls-over-the-Pistons-type win that would start the team's wheels turning toward the eventual passing of hockey's gold standard team.

For awhile — one period, to be exact — it looked like that might actually happen. Rookie Kris Versteeg slammed home a rebound for a 1-0 lead. Martin Havlat continued his tear with a goal to make it 2-1 and Dave Bolland Ben Eager made the score 3-1 while I was discovering that the troughs in Wrigley's men's bathrooms are more crowded with everyone wearing winter jackets and even more difficult to maneuver around and relieve oneself while wearing long underwear.

(To give you an idea of how cold it was, the guy next to me dropped his gloves into the, uh, you know and then actually fished them out as everyone else advised him to "Just let 'em go, man! They're gone!" The scene may already qualify for the funniest thing I'll see in 2009.) 

Unfortunately, for Hawks fans, the final two periods were a compete comedown. The spark and physical play they debuted the day with were nowhere to be found and we fell into a similar funk in the stands. I was disappointed that we weren't going to chant Detroit Sucks — and mean it — at The Full Shilling after the game. I was disappointed that the Hawks weren't going to validate their nine-game winning streak with a victory over their most hated rival. I started wondering if an otherwise perfect and memorable day had been smudged by the black mark of a loss.  

But that type of wondering is the real victory of the NHL's Winter Classic. They've taken one game  from the middle of the season and turned into something that seems much more consequential than just one of 81 other games that really matter just as much. Can any other league say that?

As for the loss, I'm thankfully already over it. The Hawks are a story in its earliest chapters and they just saw how much more needs to be written before joining hockey's true elite.

And now that Chicago's turn with the Winter Classic has passed, I'm already cherishing the opportunity I had to be at the game. My ticket is already hanging above my desk and I'm headed to CVS to print out the photos. I'll snap up discounted Winter Classic merch in the weeks ahead and tell everyone what it was like to eat a Wrigley Field hot dog in the middle of winter. I'll tell everyone how strange it is to watch a hockey game without hearing the sounds of sticks on pads, but with twice the amount of noise coming from the crowd. I'll email that picture of me in front of the Wrigley marquee to just about everyone I know and explain that only Budweiser — no Old Style — was available for purchase.

Yes, I'm at the point where I'm wishing it was possible to TiVo certain days of your life. The Winter Classic was all that and more. But until that remarkable leap in technology happens, I'll just sit back and start counting the days years until outdoor hockey comes back to Chicago. It was that cool.

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