The last time the Chicago Blackhawks played in an outdoor game they were in the midst of their franchise’s resurrection. After some dismal years, they were coming back onto the hockey map and en route to what would be two Stanley Cups in four seasons.
“(At the 2009) Winter Classic, people were just starting to discover the Hawks,” owner Rocky Wirtz said on Friday, the day before the Blackhawks hosted the Pittsburgh Penguins at Soldier Field. “After winning a couple championships, the fan base is a little bigger but we have a long way to go. But it’ll be exciting. We have a little bit of snow; it’ll be much like the New Year’s Day game. It’ll be a lot of fun.”
As the Blackhawks have returned to prominence, the NHL’s outdoor games have also gained traction. No longer just one per season, the league has expanded its idea into the current Stadium Series, which wraps up with Saturday night’s game here. Wirtz and league commissioner Gary Bettman talked about the upcoming game, which will command a large audience — but hopefully not too much snow and cold.
Asked if the outdoor games’ success has exceeded the league’s expectations, Bettman said, “of course not.”
“We’re always trying to do it better,” he said. “We knew after the first one in Buffalo that there was something special and exciting and fun about this, particularly the way fans connect with it and the way the players react to it. Anything we can do to celebrate our game and give our fans an extra-special way to connect with the game is good for the game.”
Wirtz said the game is good for many.
“What it does is it brings in people who are normally not thinking about hockey; it expands the reach,” he said. “It brings people in from out of town and it’s great for the city. At least 20,000 fans are coming in for Pittsburgh and in general, and those not going to the games are gong to their favorite watering holes to watch the game. So it’s great for restaurants and bars.”
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The Stadium Series has run the weather gamut this year, from a balmy outing in Los Angeles to two frigid — and sometimes snowy — ones in New York City. The current forecast for Saturday, according to weather.com, is a high of 27 degrees during the day and 15 at night. There’s a 60 percent chance of snow during the day, increasing to 70 percent at night (3-5 inches is expected). Some cold and snow is fine; too much of either could be a problem. Bettman said, “we have all sorts of Plan Bs; I would prefer not to dwell on them.”
As for what it would take for the game to be postponed, Bettman said, “it would have to be unsafe: either too cold in terms of medical concerns or such where the ice wasn’t able to be kept appropriately so it wouldn’t be safe for players.”
Chicago is back on the hockey map. The league’s outdoor games are finding the same amount of success. Bringing the two together this weekend is a good thing to those involved in the process. As Wirtz said, “it’s just an exciting thing to do (before) the beginning spring, when it’s 20 below and there’s snow in the air.”