Commentary

Wrigley played well in the snow

Updated: August 6, 2009, 5:24 PM ET
By Wayne Drehs | ESPN.com

CHICAGO -- Some 90 minutes before the puck dropped at Wrigley Field for the 2009 Winter Classic, the security crew for the 94-year-old stadium was caught in a state of panic, unsure how to handle a situation it had never seen.

On the main concourse beneath the stadium's first-base stands, a group of Detroit players stood in a circle bouncing a bright orange soccer ball among themselves. They did this not in some hidden room or quiet tunnel beneath Wrigley but smack in the middle of the stadium's main artery, in front of some 200 stunned fans.

Security freaked. Stadium walkie-talkies were abuzz with chatter about what to do. The fans were creating a logjam. The players weren't exactly safe. But in one of those special moments that seem fewer and farther between in today's sports world, nobody made a move to stop it. The players laughed, smiled, signed autographs and took pictures. The fans pulled out their cell phones and recorded the next YouTube clip.

And security stood still, let it go and let them have fun.

"Why not? Why not do that," said Detroit's Kris Draper, one of the participants. "Usually you don't sign before games, usually you don't take pictures with the fans, but usually you don't play a hockey game at Wrigley Field.

"We wanted this to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for everyone involved. So why not head down there and kick the soccer ball around to get ready for the game? Why not give the fans a memory they would never forget?"

On Thursday at Wrigley Field, the Blackhawks and Red Wings did just that. It started with the tape-recorded voice of legendary Chicago broadcaster Jack Brickhouse welcoming everyone to "The Friendly Confines," and ended like every other hockey game, with a fog horn.

In between, the 2009 Winter Classic left everyone in attendance with a mental scrapbook of memories that will never be erased.

There were the signs -- "Welcome to Hockeyville," "Rocky Wirtz for Governor" and "Take Me Out to the Ice Rink" -- and the outfits, from ski parkas and camouflage hunting gear to snowmobile jackets.

There was enough red to make any Cubs fan nervous.

"We don't usually see this much red unless the Cardinals are in town," said one security guard at the entrance to Wrigley's bleachers. "It makes me a little uneasy. But I'm trying to remind myself that it's OK. Red is a good color today."

Everywhere you turned, there were reminders of how different this was. Forget the massive ice rink that stretched from third base to first base or the kids' rink that was stationed just about where the Cubs' Reed Johnson positions himself in centerfield. The concourse banners of Ron Santo, Ryne Sandberg, Gabby Hartnett and Ernie Banks were replaced by posters of Patrick Sharp, Jonathan Toews, Nicklas Lidstrom and Brett Lebda.

The rooftop flags commemorating great moments in Cubs history -- from Kerry Wood's 20-strikeout game to Sammy Sosa's 66 home runs -- were replaced by alternating Blackhawks and Red Wings flags. Even along the left- and right-field foul poles, where the retired numbers of Fergie Jenkins, Billy Williams and Sandberg typically fly, a Blackhawks and Red Wings flag flew.

No one seemed to mind, Williams included. When he finally took his seat in a Wrigley skybox Thursday, he was blown away by the winter scene below.

"I am just in awe," Williams said. "Never in a million years did I ever think I would look down on this beautiful field and see a hockey game. It's stunning … absolutely, positively beautiful. I love it."

Amid the love, there was still plenty of bipartisanship. When the fans were asked to raise signs during the pregame festivities to spell a message to the viewers watching at home, half the stadium revolted and chucked their signs in the sky when they realized they were spelling "Red Wings."

Detroit defenseman Chris Chelios, who grew up in Chicago and has played for the Blackhawks, called it one of the most memorable events of his 25-year NHL career, second only to the 1991 NHL All-Star Game at the old Chicago Stadium.

"That's the only one that could top this," Chelios said. "That was just a little bit more emotional, with the Gulf War going on and everything. And that building was about 10 times louder. It's pretty tough to match that day."

It was that day when Blackhawks fans began cheering during the national anthem, a tradition that continued at Wrigley on Thursday, followed by a pair of goose-bump-inducing F-18 flyovers.

But not every tradition transition between hockey and baseball was a smooth one. Midway through the third period, Blackhawk legends Stan Mikita, Bobby Hull and Denis Savard joined former Cubs Williams, Jenkins and Sandberg for a version of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," only this one would have been called "Take Me Out to the Hockey Game." Chelios shook his head.

"You've got to get someone to come up with a new song," he said. "That's Harry's song. You can't steal Harry's song for hockey. It doesn't work."

But a lot of things did work Thursday. The score was changed by hand on Wrigley's famous scoreboard. Fans flocked to the rooftops on Waveland and Sheffield avenues, creating what had to be the only NHL game ever watched from the roof of an apartment building.

When it was all said and done, when the Red Wings had overcome a 3-1 deficit to defeat the Blackhawks 6-4, almost everyone seemed to give the event a resounding thumbs-up. Put it this way: If Cubs Hall of Famer Banks were in attendance, he would have summed up the 2009 NHL Winter Classic with three simple words: "Let's Play Two."

"I don't know about that," Chelios said after the game. "I don't know about a doubleheader in hockey. But I can tell you this -- I never wanted it to end."

Wayne Drehs is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at wayne.drehs@espn3.com.