|Soldier Field was the latest setting for outdoor hockey (Getty)|
CHICAGO -- As the sun drenched the football field-turned-hockey arena, Soldier Field looked exactly as you'd hope an outdoor game would look.
The Hockey City Classic, a doubleheader of college hockey games featuring Miami University against Notre Dame and Wisconsin taking on Minnesota in the elements, certainly put on a show. With NHL fans being robbed of the Winter Classic due to the lockout, Sunday's event at Soldier Field made a valiant attempt to fill the void -- and did so pretty well for those in attendance.
The outdoor game has become a staple of hockey at all levels now, but some would argue the novelty is wearing off. The Hockey City Classic, which saw a total attendance of 52,051 over the two games, did its best to prove otherwise.
Soldier Field was far from capacity, but it didn't grossly hinder the environment. Those who were there were loud, clad in their warmest clothing and in the best of spirits.
Notre Dame downed Miami in the early game 2-1 in a very tight, physical battle. Wisconsin rode three second-period goals to topple No. 2 Minnesota 3-2 in a highly entertaining nightcap. Both games came down to the wire. And while the ice quality wasn't the best, it didn't grossly affect play to downgrade the entertainment value.
While the Winter Classic has become a ratings juggernaut for the NHL, the scale of the exposure for games like the ones played in Chicago is smaller but no less significant.
“I think it's important for college hockey in general,” said Miami coach Enrico Blasi. “Anytime you can put our sport and our product out on a national stage in venues like today, I think it's important for our sport.”
The setting couldn't have been much better. The sun might have negatively impacted the ice in the early game, but it certainly enhanced the beauty of the event.
“We were fortunate,” said Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson. “It was great weather, a great crowd. It was a fun event -- my first opportunity to be at an outdoor game. I'm hoping the kids enjoyed it.”
In the nightcap, Minnesota and Wisconsin played as night fell, creating an entirely different look to Soldier Field but no less picturesque.
Having to compete with home games for all three of the nearest professional team -- the NHL's Chicago Blackhawks and the Chicago Wolves and Rockford Ice Hogs of the AHL -- the timing made it tough to fill the expansive home of the Chicago Bears.
It was still a fitting event for Hockey Weekend Across America as the Hockey City Classic served as a terrific celebration of the game.
“In memory of [former Wisconsin and Pittsburgh Penguins coach] Bob Johnson, it was a great day for hockey,” said Jackson.
With youth games played between periods and every kind of jersey that you could imagine in the stands, the party-like atmosphere played a large role in the overall experience.
The game was especially meaningful for the litany of players from the Chicago area, which does not have a local college hockey team.
“It was a great atmosphere,” said Sam Calabrese, a senior defenseman for Notre Dame and a native of Park Ridge, Ill. “When you come out to warmups, I think that's the first time you really realize that this place is going to be packed. It was great to have all of my family and be able to see it and not have to drive the two hours to South Bend. I know a lot of the other Chicago boys had family here, and everyone was thrilled to play in the game. It was great for the community.”
“We have [Chicago Bears] season tickets as a family, so it was a surreal experience,” said Michael Mersch, a junior forward for Wisconsin and Los Angeles Kings prospect.
Even for the teams on the losing end, the experience was worthwhile.
“Playing outside in front of over 50,000 people was a great experience, but you kind of lose a little bit of that when you lose the game,” said a dejected Steven Spinell, captain of Miami and another Chicagoland native.
“The experience was terrific,” said Minnesota coach Don Lucia, who likened the environment to that of the NCAA playoffs. “I think the fans had a good time, too. We had a great group that came down tonight, and they enjoyed themselves, too. That's what this game is all about.”
While the outdoor game is certainly going to get tired as a television event, for the people in attendance, the Hockey City Classic did exactly what it was supposed to do.
Nothing beats the live experience. And if people keep coming, these events will keep coming and the game might just be better for it.
It was a great day for hockey in Chicago.