The Winter Classic at Wrigley: Do We Throw Back the Pucks?

By Christopher Gabriel,

The Winter ClassicIt’s said that a boy (or girl) roots for the teams his dad follows.  That was true for me when I was growing up in the 1960’s and it remains in play today.  As a native of Chicago and having a father who came from the South Side, I naturally threw my allegiance to the White Sox and my disdain to the Cubs.  That, along with unconditional passion for the Bears, Bulls and Blackhawks.  As a Chicago fan the word word “unconditional” is always included because your sports-loving sanity is tested on an annual basis, no matter the team.

For all the charm and magic of Wrigley Field – my Cubs fans friends tell me you can’t write “Wrigley Field” without including the words charm and magic – Sox fans rarely pay a visit to 1060 West Addison Street unless the Sox and Cubs are playing each other in the Crosstown Classic.  But with the NHL’s 2009 installment of the Winter Classic coming to The Friendly Confines on January 1, 2009, featuring the hated Detroit Red Wings against the most beloved NHL team on the planet, the Chicago Blackhawks, I would happily consider parachuting into the place if I couldn’t get in with an actual ticket. 

So how will 2009 play out? 

Last year’s Winter Classic drew an NHL-record crowd of 71,217  to watch the Pittsburgh Penguins take on the Buffalo Sabres at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, NY.  While it was an impressive scene to behold, this year’s setting is the kind of thing Disney makes movies about.  An NHL game in one of the most historic venues in all of sports, several blocks from Lake Michigan, in one of the world’s great cities – Ernie Banks must be saying “let’s play two!”  And then there’s the actual game itself.

The Red Wings-Blackhawks rivalry is one for the ages.  Literally.

This is not one of these convenient made-for-TV rivalries that spans all of two or three years.  Or one that was born from playing each other a few times in the playoffs.  This contest will be the 701st meeting between the teams going back to November 24, 1926 when the Cougars (renamed the Red Wings in 1932) defeated the Black Hawks (changed to Blackhawks in 1986) 1-0 at the Chicago Coliseum, the Hawks’ home before the Madhouse on Madison, Chicago Stadium, was born. 

When you consider Detroit and Chicago have played the most regular season games in NHL history, it’s fitting the only thing in this game older than the rivalry is the stadium they’re playing in.

My first trip inside Wrigley Field was on October 11, 1970.  I sat in the right field bleachers to watch the Bears take on the Minnesota Vikings.  It was a great experience until the game actually started.  The Bears got shutout 24-0.  My lasting memory was the silence of the fans leaving the park.  My first baseball game there found me in the sixth row behind home plate as the Cubs were shutout by the Phillies, 3-0.  Different sport, same silence.

And now, hockey comes to the North Side.  The superstitious part of me believes I’m doing the Hawks a favor by not attending.

But what of the fans who will be there?

There’s no manual for hockey fans’ etiquette when attending a game outdoors, much less in a place filled with the history and traditions of Wrigley.  And if you venture out to the park that sits on the corner of Waveland and Sheffield, there are very specific traditions you need to be aware of.  Namely, throwing back home run balls hit by an opponent and singing Take Me Out to the Ballgame in the 7th inning which is followed by the singer-of-the-day yelling into the microphone “LET’S GET SOME RUNS!”

So the question millions of sports fans are asking (or at least a few thousand in Chicago) in the remaining days leading up to the game:  How will these Wrigley hallmarks transfer over to hockey?

If an errant puck from the stick or skate of a Red Wings player sails over the glass and makes it to the bleachers, will it get thrown back?  And what if a puck from a Blackhawks player lands in the lap of a Red Wings fan, then what?  If he throws it back, will Thinsulate gloves come off by the dozens as fans start pulling parkas over each other’s heads before being separated and hauled off to that special penalty box known as the Police Station?

It’s bad enough busloads of Detroit fans make their way to Chicago when the Wings are in town (this is a byproduct of the many years the Blackhawks were run like a financially-strapped Squirt hockey team in El Paso, Texas).  At the very least keep them, and their incorrect shade of red jerseys, far away from Wrigley’s bleachers.

Finally, how will the classic Wrigley Field 7th inning stretch be handled? 

Will Chicago native and Cubs zealot Bill Murray be up in the press box, several feet from where legendary broadcaster Harry Caray used to sit, singing Take Me Out to the Ballgame at the beginning of the 3rd period?  If Caray was alive today, you could bet every bar and restaurant in Wrigleyville the Blackhawks would have him up there singing.  The mere thought of hearing him yell “LET’S GET SOME GOALS” would have been worth the price of admission, no matter the outcome.

The NHL doesn’t always measure up when it comes to capturing the imagination of the American sports fan.  But they got it right with the Winter Classic.  After this year’s game, the only other venue and rivalry that even begins to approach the Red Wings-Blackhawks tilt at Wrigley Field would be the Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins in Fenway Park.  Like this game, in this setting, it would be a remarkable event. 

Is there any chance NHL executives already have figured this out?

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Filed Under: NHLSports


About the Author: Christopher Gabriel is the host of the cleverly named Christopher Gabriel Program on AM 970 WDAY in Fargo, North Dakota. You can hear him weekdays from 9 to Noon. As a writer and humorist, his work has been been published online by the Chicago Sun-Times, Reuters and publications within the Sun-Times News Group.

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  1. I love the national TV ads using Harry Caray singing, “Take Me Out To The Ball Game”, tying Wrigley Field and the NHL together.

    Lets hope that the weather cooperates. It will not be a pretty sight if the weather warms up. The magic from last years game, was the snow storm that kicked up during the game. How wonderful it would be if mother nature could pull that feat off again.


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