Commentary

Wings, Hawks latest teams to feel that outdoor magic

Updated: December 31, 2008, 9:32 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

CHICAGO -- If there is one powerful element that defines the NHL's now annual outdoor sojourns, it is the ability to release the inner child in almost every person connected to the game.

It is a constant, and it is what will almost certainly ensure that these events continue to be sought after by NHL clubs hither and yon.

Don't believe us?

Look at the faces of the Detroit Red Wings as they hurried down the stairs from the visiting clubhouse at Wrigley Field to get their first glimpse of the sheet of ice that has sprouted like magic in the infield.

"It's pretty awesome that we are here. When you come in, you run up the stairs to see how the rink looked," Detroit forward Henrik Zetterberg said Wednesday after the Wings' first and only practice on the surface. "Tomorrow's going to be awesome. It's going to be real exciting to come here when the stands are full."

They came to the ice wearing toques and special body gear to fight off the cold and, in the case of the Blackhawks, black smudge under their eyes to fight off the glare of the sun with their area codes written in the black as a way of acknowledging their own hometowns.

As they made their way onto the ice, their breath hanging still in the crisp, cold air, they also brought with them their own memories of outdoor rinks in hometowns scattered across the globe.

"When I was a little kid, in front of my old apartment, we had a little rink, and in the winter, we sprayed the water and built the boards and we skated outdoors. I think it was the last time I was outdoors," Red Wings star Marian Hossa, a native of Stara Lubovna, Slovakia, recalled.

"It brings back memories of pickup hockey when you're with friends; I think it's more of that," said Zetterberg, who hails from Njurunda, Sweden. "When you're coming home for Christmas or stuff like that and all the friends that have moved out of town come back home and you go out and play for a few hours of pickup hockey."

"When I looked around [at practice], it looked like a bunch of kids having fun," Red Wings forward Jiri Hudler said. "They're so excited to be here and it's going to be great tomorrow."

The native of Olomouc, Czech Republic, had never been to Wrigley before, but veteran defenseman Chris Chelios was trying to help prepare Hudler for the experience.

"Chelly's trying to teach me the song," Hudler said. "I'm going to sing tomorrow. 'Take me to the ballgame.' He sang that a couple of times, so I got some words."

If there is one player for whom this day will carry extra meaning it is Chelios, the NHL's oldest player. Born in Chicago in 1962, he recalled his first visit to Wrigley in the late 1960s or early 1970s with his father and uncle. They sat in the upper deck because that was the only place they could get tickets.

Like most of the players who will take the ice Thursday afternoon, Chelios first skated outdoors.

"Lake Meadows I think was where I started, right off the lake," Chelios said. "That's the first arena that I played at, which was outdoors and was cold as hell. Then we played at Fenwick, which was half inside, half outside."

After being drafted by Montreal in 1981, Chelios returned to Chicago in 1990-91 and played the hometown hero until being traded to Detroit in March 1999. He's been in Detroit a decade now, winning two Stanley Cups along the way, but he remains very much a Chicago boy.

[+] EnlargeChris Chelios
Ross Dettman for ESPN.comThe Winter Classic has extra meaning for Chris Chelios, who grew up in Chicago.

Last summer, when his turn with the Stanley Cup came up, Chelios brought the trophy to Wrigley. Thursday, he will play a game there. Even now, it boggles the mind, he said.

"It's great. Who would [have] ever thought this was going to happen? Growing up in Chicago even makes it that more special," Chelios said. "Perfect day today, beautiful day; hopefully it'll continue to be like that tomorrow.

"I hope I'm not taking it for granted, but just the fact that we're playing hockey here is pretty amazing, never in my wildest dreams. Today's practice, just sitting out there looking at the bleachers and seeing Murphy's across the street from an ice rink is a little different."

He's been to the famous Wrigleyville watering hole?

"Yeah, I've been to Murphy's a couple of times. Say 'hi' to the family over there you guys," Chelios joked with reporters.

Along with coaching Hudler on the finer points of Wrigley's signature song, Chelios has helped to introduce his teammates to the magic of the old ballpark.

Zetterberg recalled how Chelios and Nicklas Lidstrom took him to an afternoon game during his first road trip to Chicago in his rookie year, a visit that included a tour of the Cubs' locker room. Now, he's getting ready to play an NHL game in the visitors clubhouse.

"I gave him the full Murphy's, Wrigley, Murphy's again, tour," Chelios recalled. "I think Nick Lidstrom was part of that too, so I'll throw him under the bus also. That was a few years back. I think it was Henrik's first year in the league."

Thursday will be all business, of course.

The Blackhawks and Red Wings are division rivals and coming off a physical game in Detroit on Tuesday night won handily 4-0 by the Red Wings. But Wednesday was a day for both nostalgia and experimentation.

The ice is still a work in progress and there were pylons marking areas where the ice was especially rough. Chicago players were experimenting with various tinted visors to help deal with the bright sunshine that dominated Wednesday's practice, although it is supposed to be overcast for Thursday's game.

Brent Seabrook hit the ice sporting a pair of oversized sunglasses handed to him by a fan. He will likely wear a visor Thursday even though he normally does not wear one.

Chicago forward Dave Bolland admitted he was surprised at the chill.

"You feel it going through your body and it was a bit of a shock," he said.

So, did the black smudge work?

"No, it doesn't help at all," Adam Burish said.

But he liked the look, especially being able to sport the area code for his hometown of Madison, Wis.

Ensconced in the Cubs' locker room, Blackhawks players enjoyed the different surroundings, the baseball bats, the sunflower seeds.

"It's not your usual hockey locker room and that's what's so cool about it," Burish said.

The NHL's regular season is a grind, an endurance test, both mentally and physically. Games like this, then, have the power to rejuvenate and energize because they represent so many unique elements. The power of nostalgia is one of them.

"The National Hockey League is like Groundhog Day. What I mean is, it wears you out," Detroit coach Mike Babcock said. "I know when you've been through what we've been through, you're not as pumped every night as you'd like to be and something like this gets you excited."

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.

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