A look back at the Winter Classic

Was it worth the hype? The cold? The poor sightlines? A soused Bobby Hull trying to sing?

You bet.

The Winter Classic in Chicago was more than a game – it was part-street fair as well, and perhaps more important, a celebration of a sport that still doesn’t get a lot of respect by the public at large.

There is a tagline on some ad campaign for a cell phone company that says “Hockey fans are like no other.” Truer words were never spoken as nearly 41,000 heart souls gathered on New Year’s Day at the ballpark on the corner of Clark and Addison streets to watch an event that is still considered a bit of a novelty.

Since I live about a 15-minute walk from Wrigley Field, I went there the day before the game to wander around. Soaked up some of the atmosphere at the FanFest area, but there weren’t many people around.

On game day, I made my way to Wrigley around 9 a.m., and the closer you got the stronger the sense of this being something big – an event I needed to be at as a fan if I couldn’t be there as a journalist.

Walking around the park, first along Addison then Clark then along Waveland, it was clear this was going to be one big ol’ party. Hours after New Years’ fans slowly started to gather, haggle with ticket scalpers for last-minute deals, take in the FanFest stuff like ice carving, face painting and music.

I was happy just to watch and observe. Hockev Night In Canada pundit Don Cherry, immaculately dressed as always, was his usual boisterous self as he glad-handed many along Waveland.

As for the jerseys people sported, there were many – and, no, I didn’t break out my New York Rangers’ No. 34. Couple of Reg Dunlop’s No. 7 from the Charlestown Chiefs. Alexander Mogilny’s 89 and Gilbert Perreault’s 11 from the Buffalo Sabres. Several Pittsburgh Penguins throwbacks, which would have been more authentic to me if they were of, say, Rick Kehoe or Ron Flockhart instead of Sid the Kid’s No. 87.

All the usual Wings’ sweaters were seen – Howe’s No. 9, Lidstrom’s 5. Yzerman’s 19. McCarty’s 25, Draper’s 33.

It seemed that when you saw the Indian head, there was invariably Kane’s 88 or Toews’19 attached to it.

Suprisingly, I didn’t see one person wearing Hull’s No. 9. But Ruutu’s No. 15 was spotted more than once. So was Daze’s 55 and Mikita’s 21. A young kid was a Brent Sopel fan, sporting the journeyman’s No. 5. Savard’s 18. Seabrook’s 7. Griswold’s 00.

An older fan wore Chicago’s black third jersey with Glenn Hall’s No. 1, something the Hall of Famer never would have donned considering he retired almost 40 years ago. There was also the fan that paid respect to Chicago Stadium, the Madhouse on Madison street, with his Stadium sweater bearing the No. 94 for the last season there before moving to the United Center.

The best one spotted may have been a white Blackhawks No. 44 jersey with DETROIT SUCKS as the nameplate.

After all the pageantry – the introduction of Chicago sports legends Hull, Mikita, Tony Esposito, the Cubs’ Ryne Sandberg and Billy Williams – the Blackhaws led 3-1 after one period and looked like the hungrier team.

Detroit was well-represented on the North Side, though. An inflatable octopus hung from the upper deck. A sign reminded Blackhawks fans the Detroit has copped the Stanley Cup 11 times compared to only three for Chicago.

Their presence was enough that there was a healthy “Let’s go Red Wings” chant, each punctuated back with “Detroit sucks,” at least for a while. After Chicago’s Cristobal Huet allowed three second-period goals to rally back from two down, it was clear who was the stronger side.

Regardless of the result, it was a great day for the sport, and clear the NHL struck gold here - even television ratings were up 12 percent.

If the 2008 Winter Classic in Buffalo was a test run, this year’s fine-tuned the product to get ready for what I expect to be a game in New York less than a year from now.

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