- Scott Burnside, NHL
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CHICAGO -- There was a time when John McDonough figured the toughest sports ticket was the one that got you in the door at Wrigley Field the night the Chicago Cubs finally turned on the lights in August 1988.
McDonough would know. He helped turn the lights on in Wrigley.
As the hours slip away before the 2009 Winter Classic between the hometown Chicago Blackhawks and the defending Stanley Cup-champion Detroit Red Wings on New Year's Day, McDonough figures he's now seen the demand for, and prestige of, that ticket eclipsed.
"We could fill Wrigley 10 times over," McDonough told ESPN.com Monday, not long after the ice surface was painted white and a few hours before the Winter Classic logo and red and blue lines were to be painted in.
Ticket demands? Well into the hundreds of thousands, he said.
People want a piece of the moment.
"When I walked into Wrigley Field yesterday and saw the rink for the first time, I was awestruck, thunderstruck," said McDonough, who left the Cubs after 24½ years to become president of the Blackhawks.
It harkens back to a conversation we had with McDonough last September.
The buzz was about the Blackhawks and their renaissance, the fact they had jumped from 3,400 season tickets sold in 2007-08 to just under 14,000 for this season.
In discussing the 2008-09 campaign on that late-summer day, McDonough suggested this game on Jan. 1 would be a watershed moment for the franchise. More than that, he suggested it might be the most important game in the franchise's 83 years of existence.
"I think the outdoor game at Wrigley Field is going to be a defining moment for this franchise," McDonough said at the time. "I think it has a chance to be an epiphany. It's going to be the biggest stage the franchise has ever been on."
It all sounded like a bit much, especially given the expanse of time that existed between then and now, the fact that the team had not won a Stanley Cup since 1961, had not won a playoff series since 1996 and failed to qualify for the playoffs for five straight seasons and nine of the last 10 postseasons.
There was promise, of course, for this Blackhawks season, and not just because the NHL's second straight date with Mother Nature was going to take place at venerable Wrigley Field. This was the season the Hawks were to marry newfound fan support with an on-ice breakthrough. There was defending Rookie of the Year Patrick Kane plus young captain Jonathan Toews and top free-agent acquisitions Brian Campbell and Cristobal Huet.
Of course, the problem with expectations and hype is, all too often, the two never quite converge.
Yet, as the Winter Classic looms, it seems McDonough was right.
Fresh from a franchise-record nine-game winning streak, the Blackhawks have more than fulfilled their offseason promise in the standings, where they are hot on the heels of the Red Wings in the Central Division. Barring a monumental collapse, Chicago will be playoff-bound in April, and there is talk of a potential to run deep into the postseason.
Then, there are the converging external forces that have focused global attention on the city of late, with President-elect Barack Obama and the city's bid for the 2016 Olympics.
"I feel stronger about that statement than when I made it," McDonough said. "This has a chance to change the DNA of the franchise forever."
You've got to love a man who embraces a new job so heartily and then finds the language to illustrate his convictions and beliefs.
Around Wrigley, the community is slowly but surely being transmogrified, at least temporarily, from the heartbeat of the American pastime to the center of the hockey universe (sorry, Toronto). The spectator plaza was being put in Monday. The marquis and video scoreboards were going up around the ballpark.
It's just a game, of course, one game among the 82 each team slogs through to get to the end of the regular season. And deciding to play outdoors always brings with it the specter of impending disaster. (As ice guru Dan Craig said Monday, conditions are good but he isn't happy. "You know me better than that. I'm never happy. I'm never happy 'til it's over.")
But in a season that has seen the global economic downturn further erode fan and corporate support in places like Phoenix, Atlanta and Tampa, the Blackhawks are an unmitigated success story.
The United Center has been filled to capacity for every home game so far this season, and McDonough expects they will sell out the string. It is mind-boggling to consider given that, before the NHL lockout, the AHL's Chicago Wolves, who play in suburban Chicago, often had more live bodies in the seats than the Blackhawks did.
The Winter Classic, then, comes in the form of a celebration. Not necessarily of having reached goals (no one gets their name on a Stanley Cup or gets invited to the playoff ball in January), but having succeeded in holding a hockey game in the middle of a baseball field and making it into something more than a gimmick.
"It's an international validation that something's going on in Chicago -- something positive," McDonough said.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
Before the start of this season, Blackhawks president John McDonough made the bold prediction that the Winter Classic might be the biggest game in the franchise's history. Months later, his words ring true.