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The [Winter Classic] Papers

The inescapable truth of the Winter Classic is that, underneath all the pageantry and pomp, it's still an adversarial event. One team will win, one team will lose, and the subjective experience of the viewer will be shaped by their allegiance. No critique can be considered impartial because, let's face it, you wouldn't be sitting outside for three-and-a-half hours freezing off your tender bits if you weren't emotionally invested in the outcome. So let's expose the implicit editorial slant straight away. Your reviewer is a life-long worshipper of the winged wheel and, as such, enjoyed the game itself immensely.

Now to evaluate the myriad ways the NHL attempted to distract us from that inescapable truth. For all the pre-game bellyaching about Wrigley Field's unsuitability for hosting this type of event, the park itself looked great. The ice surface occupied a lot more of the infield than the mockups indicated, and the addition of a mini-rink in the outfield for peewee skaters broke up the remaining space well. There was precious little security at the gates, so getting in and out of the building was a breeze. Once inside, though, it was a zoo. Turns out the Friendly Confines are a lot more confined when everyone is wearing 65 layers of wool and down feathers. The long lines at concession stands and souvenir shops that are nuisances during Cubs games were major obstacles here. The upper-level concourses thinned out a bit, but were still tricky to navigate.

The visibility issues that were carped about ahead of the game also were not as bad as predicted. Most seats had one of three problems: they were too low, too far back or partially obstructed by an upper deck pillar. My informal survey of attendees from throughout the park indicated a general consensus that none of these factors rendered the game unwatchable. The views may not have been ideal, but they were good enough. Our seats were located in the 200 level, directly behind the third-base goal (how funny does that sound?). We were high enough to catch the whole ice surface, but did have a pillar in our sight line. Occasionally we would lose some of the action in the right face-off circle, but we could usually fix the problem by standing up, tilting our heads, crouching over, etc. That probably sounds like a pain in the ass, but when it's below freezing and windy you'll welcome any excuse to move around anyway.

To supplement the views, all of the in-stadium television monitors were tuned to the NBC broadcast and two giant screens were hung up at either end of the bleachers. The large screens looked like a recipe for disaster given the high winds, but thankfully they were well-secured.

As much as the visual obstacles proved less severe than anticipated, the audio problems proved worse. The public address was way too quiet; if you could hear Gene Honda's velvety voice at all, you could barely make out a word of what he was saying. The referee's mike worked approximately once a period, so penalties and reviews were a bit hard to follow. Also, there was a several-minute delay between the action on the ice and the booth announcements. Most annoying of all, though, was the lack of audio in the restrooms. If you had to relieve yourself, you had no way to follow the action. Maybe this was due to some kind of local radio blackout, but with XM/Sirius a very visible sponsor you'd think something could've been worked out.

There's no way to downplay the impact of the weather, both on the game and the spectators. It was nowhere near the brutal conditions of the last Bears home game, but the temperature seemed a far cry from the predicted highs in the mid to upper 30s. Outright misery could be avoided through intelligent layering. When the wind kicked up, however, you may as well have been naked. There were times when the players and officials clearly struggled to adjust to the conditions. The refs looked like stripy popsicles and any hope of tracking penalties by watching hand signals dissolved as they struggled to moved their exposed digits.

On this note, I'd like to offer a suggestion to the NHL and NBC. I understand this is a big event and one of the few chances you have to showcase the sport to a wider television audience. Of course you want to draw out the pre-game festivities. Of course you want to acknowledge the history of the game. And of course you want to convey the spirit of the legendary Wrigley Field atmosphere. But please. It's cold as a witch's tit and we're all hung over. Forty minutes of fireworks and ceremonial puck drops is just too damn much.

Whether or not these and other minor complaints were enough to ruin the experience depends on your personal involvement with the game of hockey. I'm a fanatical lover of the sport and, as such, you could've drawn and quartered me during the first intermission and I still would've had the time of my life. I realized early on that I would enjoy the Winter Classic no matter the final score, but I'd be lying if I didn't say the stands felt a lot warmer as of 17:17 in the second.

* 360 Degrees of the Winter Classic at Wrigley Field/Detroit Free Press

* A Grand Slam: With Wrigley as the setting, outdoor hockey a big hit again/Boston Globe

* Classic is a Keeper/Edmonton Sun

* Inside Wrigley


* Outside Wrigley


The Beachwood Tip Line: Now outdoors.


Posted on January 2, 2009

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PEOPLE PLACES & THINGS - Chicagoetry: West Town Blues.

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