Outdoor gems too fun to get old


CHICAGO -- On a cold Saturday evening, about 60,000 fans sat in near-blizzard conditions to watch a regular-season hockey game in a football stadium.

This "Stadium Series" game didn't need marketing. It didn't need beer sponsorships and a glitzy production. It certainly didn't need a between-periods concert from the Plain White T's. This game could've sold out by word of mouth.

Outdoor hockey forever, man.

"It honestly did feel like we were playing shinny hockey in the backyard," captain Jonathan Toews said after his Chicago Blackhawks' 5-1 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins at Soldier Field.

Do 62,291 fans show up to shinny hockey games in Toews' native Winnipeg? Check that, it's Canada. So, yeah, probably. But here, it's still a novelty.

"Every time there was shovels on the ice, you sat back and looked around and kind of marveled at the people and how amazing the setting was,"  Kris Versteeg said.

But while the fans at the game had a blast, the dollars and cents of playing stadium games continues to make perfect sense.

This game, the last of the expanded "Stadium Series" games, which grew out of the annual Winter Classic game, was much more meaningful than the final score, precious points be damned.

In a league constantly reinforcing its national image in America, the rare opportunity to put two of American's most popular teams in a Saturday night prime-time game, in eye-pleasing snowy conditions, was a Stanley Cup-size victory for the league even before Chicago Bears Hall of Famer Richard Dent dropped the ceremonial first puck.

The fact that the Blackhawks' stars -- Toews (two goals and an assist) and Kane (one nasty assist) -- showed up with memorable plays didn't hurt.

The Blackhawks have a knack for performing on big stages. From their Stanley Cup clinchers to their Olympic glories, this is a team worth showcasing.

If they held this game in Chicago every year -- be it at Soldier Field, U.S. Cellular Field or Wrigley Field -- who would complain? Heck, put them on the ice rink at the Midway Plaisance at the University of Chicago.

Forget the critics -- the spectacle of watching hockey players skate outdoors will never get old. Never. Ever. There will always be an abundance of fans who will watch.

Even if the snow made the hockey sloppy and required lengthy shovel breaks, it was all about the optics. All about the marketing of a fast, skilled game.

And guess what -- that's OK. It's great, in fact.

Hockey gets stronger in America with every passing season as more and more Americans remember which channel games are on without a lengthy guide search. These two teams are very likely the most popular ones south of the Canadian border.

If the Blackhawks and Penguins meet again indoors in the Stanley Cup finals, they'll be popping bottles that are way more expensive than those from official sponsors Molson Canadian and Coors Light in the league offices this summer.

Because Blackhawks-Penguins means Toews and Sidney Crosby, Patrick Kane and Evgeni Malkin. It means eyeballs and dollar signs, not to mention some top-shelf hockey.

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