SUN Hockey Pool

Classic is a keeper

TERRY JONES, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:50 AM ET

It didn't have the snow globe effect of last year's Winter Classic in Buffalo.

There weren't 71,217 fans. And there wasn't Sidney Crosby winning it in a shootout.

It didn't have the signature of Jose Theodore's toque on top of his helmet or a mega-stars game featuring Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and all the Oilers greats against Guy Lafleur, Larry Robinson and other legends from the Montreal Canadiens.

There weren't 57,167 fans freezing in arctic-like -23 C temperatures for six hours, or at least until the winner of $75,000 in the 50-50 had been announced, like in the original -- the Heritage Classic at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton.

But yesterday's third NHL outdoor game in Chicago's Wrigley Field would have to be scored every bit as much of a hit, a hockey home run, as the first two.

This one came with the bonus of being much more of an actual game, with whacking, hacking, hitting and playmaking on a much better ice surface than the first two.

In a weird way, the better conditions may have made it somewhat less romantic, perhaps, but that was negated by the fact it was in the friendly confines of Wrigley Field.

'IDIOTIC IDEA'

And you'd have to expect that the outdoor game, which was treated as an idiotic idea by certain eastern Canadian sportswriters when it was first invented, will meet or beat NBC's remarkable audience numbers of last year.

Those ratings, you should know, were far higher than the network drew for any of the regular season or playoff games -- including the Stanley Cup final.

Yesterday the man who invented it, the man who had the dream, was sitting in the stands at Wrigley, very much feeling like a proud papa.

"This was my dream, and I really felt what we started in Edmonton has taken a special shape," said Patrick LaForge, the Oilers CEO who wasn't able to attend the game last year in Buffalo.

"Today was very cool. You could see that this thing now has big legs to be moved around. This is not going to go away.

"I think Edmonton's Heritage Classic is always going to have a special place because of what this event has become, and I know it won't just be because it was the first but because of the legends game we had which will never be repeated -- especially not with the calibre of legendary players we had.

"I don't think any city will ever become as completely involved in it as Edmonton. But today was brilliant. There was a real passion there. It was great for Chicago and for hockey and for hockey in Chicago."

While the novelty of watching professional hockey players perform outdoors may lessen from year to year, what this edition proved is that locale makes each one different.

Having covered the first two in person, this was the first time I experienced the television effect -- choosing to watch more of it on NBC than CBC -- and how it's hard not to be drawn to the outdoor game when switching from the Gator Bowl to the Capital One Bowl when you have hockey at Wrigley Field.

SKATE GUARDS

Players wearing skate guards tromping to the rink, some stopping to touch home plate. An opening faceoff in shallow centre field. The Detroit coaches wearing old time fedoras, the Red Wings in 1926-27 replica uniforms and Blackhawks in vintage 1936-37 duds. The faux brick on the outsides of the boards. Stan Mikita, Bobby Hull, Ferguson Jenkins and other legends singing "Take me out to the hockey game" during the seventh inning stretch (when the team's switched ends at the 10-minute mark of the third period).

It all worked.

You have to believe this this event is going to be back, again and again and again.

It's a spectacle.

Next stop, Denver? Minnesota? Philadelphia? Detroit? Central Park in New York? Fenway Park in Boston?

And while this has first and foremost become about U.S. television, how long before you can keep it from coming back to hockey's real winter wonderland in Canada?

You don't think this would work in Montreal, Ottawa or Calgary? How about, for old times sake, Quebec City or Winnpeg?

And eventually they're going to have to bring it back where it all began, because LaForge is right.

Something special started here.


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