The Blackhawks don’t get to settle themselves back into a post Olympic routine because they will be involved in the NHL’s Stadium Series this up coming weekend. When the league announced they would be adding five more outdoor games to its traditional New Year’s Day Winter Classic, I did not like the idea. I thought it would make the novelty of the outdoor game wear off and just become a publicity stunt, which it still may. But, you can’t argue with the success and the revenue brought in by the first round of games in Los Angeles and New York. Gary Bettman takes a huge beating in the court of public opinion, but to his credit, he has does some great things to increase the flow of cash into the league and that is good for everyone. The NHL doesn’t have every network falling all over themselves to pay billions of dollars for broadcasting rights like the NFL, so every revenue source is key.
Saturday night’s game between the Blackhawks and the Pittsburgh Penguins will be fun, but it does not even come close to what the 2009 Winter Classic meant to this franchise. The first difference is the venue. Soldier Field does not have the history or mystique that Wrigley Field has. It is a bigger and newer stadium so most fans will be much farther away from the rink than they were at Wrigley. When the Winter Classic was here in 2009, not only was it the first game to be held inside of a baseball stadium but it was being played in one of the most historic sporting venues in the world. That day had the famous scoreboard, the bleachers and the surrounding neighborhood was abuzz. None of this will be on the lakefront Saturday night.
The matchup on Saturday is a handpicked ratings grab with the defending Stanley Cup Champion Blackhawks taking on the Penguins who are the darlings of NBC. There really is no rivalry between these two teams, even though I will always hate Pittsburgh for the 1992 Stanley Cup Final. The Winter Classic featured the Hawks and their hated rivals, the Detroit Red Wings. The Wings were still the kings of the Western Conference and everyone knew they were the team that stood in the way of the Blackhawks reaching the next step. The Penguins are one of the top teams in the NHL but they do not spark the same passion that the Wings do.
The biggest and most important difference is state of the franchise between now and then. January 1st, 2009 is one of the most important dates in Blackhawks history. It announced that the dark days of the final years of the Bill Wirtz era was over and the golden age of Chicago hockey was here. The Hawks were beginning to break out of being one of the worst franchises in all of sports and become a destination for big free agents. There was a young core of rising superstars that started to create a buzz again. Thanks to the shrewd business practices and the alienation of fans by Bill Wirtz the Blackhawks became an afterthought in Chicago. The Blackhawks started to become relevant again the day Rocky Wirtz hired John McDonough away from the Chicago Cubs. The 2009 Winter Classic was the culmination of their hard work to restore the legacy of the Blackhawks. Even though the Hawks lost that day to the WIngs, they were the ultimate winners. It was the day that the Blackhawks mattered again, both nationally and in Chicago. I grew up going to games at the Chicago Stadium in the 80’s and that rabid fan base started to come back. You started seeing the Blackhawks on the front page of the sports section instead of lining the bottom of bird cages across the city. The Blackhawks logo started appearing all over Chicago on hats, jackets, jerseys and bumper stickers. This was the first day of the greatest era of Chicago Blackhawks hockey that we are currently living in. We will speak to future generations about Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane the way our parents told us stories about Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita. No other outdoor game will ever be more special and more important to the Blackhawks than the 2009 Winter Classic.