Wednesday, July 16, 2008
NHL to put Wrigley Field on ice on New Year's Day
CHICAGO -- Frosty baseball games have long been a fixture at Wrigley Field, where a stiff wind off Lake Michigan can chill fans, players and managers alike.
Now the Friendly Confines is going on ice. For one day.
The defending Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings and the Chicago Blackhawks are taking hockey back outdoors when they meet New Year's Day 2009 in the home park of the Chicago Cubs.
It will be the NHL's second Winter Classic. Last season in Buffalo, the Pittsburgh Penguins beat the Buffalo Sabres 2-1 before a crowd of 71,217. Snow fell during the game and the Pens won on Sidney Crosby's goal in a shootout.
It will mark the third regular-season outdoor game in NHL history. The Edmonton Oilers hosted the Montreal Canadiens on Nov. 22, 2003.
The game, beginning at 1 p.m. ET, will be televised nationally on NBC.
The matchup will be the 701st meeting between the Red Wings and Blackhawks -- no NHL opponents have played more regular-season games against one another than these two fierce rivals. Red Wings fans often make the trip to Chicago when their team faces the Blackhawks.
"The NHL is delighted to bring its most historic rivalry to one of the most historic venues in sports," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said.
"We've been a candidate to play in this for a long time and everybody in our organization is excited about being a part of what is becoming an annual outdoor classic," Red Wings general manager Ken Holland said. "It's a tremendous opportunity to promote our game, our league and our team and have a one-in-a-lifetime experience at the same time."
Wrigley Field is the second-oldest baseball park in the major leagues behind Boston's Fenway Park. Wrigley opened in 1914 and the Cubs played their first game there two years later.
The Chicago Bears once played at Wrigley Field. And the neighborhood park has hosted other events, including two Sting concerts during the All-Star break of 2007 that resulted in patches of the outfield grass being roughed up.
Cubs officials weren't immediately available for comment Wednesday.
Blackhawks president John McDonough is a former president of the Cubs, where he was also a longtime marketing executive.
The Jan. 1 game could also be competing for viewers with college football bowl games, a New Year's Day tradition.
NBC Sports spokesman Brian Walker said the game is played on a heavy bowl game day because it has its own set of viewers. Last year's Winter Classic earned a 2.6 overnight rating and a 5 share, the best overnight NHL regular-season rating in more than a decade.
"It's a great event that stands on its own. It exceeded our wildest expectations last time and we expect to build on that success at a great venue with two Original Six franchises," Walker said. "You can't ask for anything better. Hopefully we've started a new tradition. The ratings were extremely healthy last year and we fully anticipate them to improve."
Bettman also said the league will continue discussions with the New York Yankees and the city of New York to perhaps bring an outdoor game to the new Yankee Stadium that opens next year.
Eddie Olczyk, who helped broadcast the Penguins-Sabres game for NBC last year and is a former Blackhawks player, called the outdoor experience "one of the best events I've ever been a part of as a player, coach or broadcaster. It truly was a memorable experience and a great day for the sport of hockey."
Getting the game is the latest move by the Blackhawks to regain popularity in their own city where they have lagged after missing the playoffs nine times in the past 10 seasons.
"We have said from the start we are going to do everything possible to bring the Chicago Blackhawks back to the forefront of sports for our fans and the city of Chicago," Blackhawks chairman Rocky Wirtz said.
The Blackhawks have put together a nucleus of young players, headed by NHL rookie of the year Patrick Kane, and have finally worked out a deal to have their home games televised, something they didn't do for years under the late owner Bill Wirtz, Rocky's father.