Outdoor gems too fun to get old

Toews/Crosby

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.

In Chicago, the Blackhawks, with two Stanley Cups in the past five years, are a top draw, selling out every game and averaging 159,000 local viewers a game on Comcast SportsNet Chicago, according to a recent Sports Business Journal story. Try to find a city bar not showing the Blackhawks during the regular season.

In Yinzer country, the Penguins are perhaps even more popular, averaging 91,000 viewers per local game, which is quite an audience considering their market size. According a Root Sports news release last May, Penguins games averaged a 12.66 local rating, the highest for a major sports team on a Root network since 2002.

"It's a good matchup to have for this type of game," Kane said Friday night. "Two teams that a lot of fans probably want to watch on TV, and when you mix it in with the Stadium Series type of game, it makes it even more interesting."

That the Blackhawks dominated thrilled the home crowd. When they last played an outdoor game, back in 2009 at Wrigley Field against the Detroit Red Wings, the Blackhawks were ascendant, but they hadn't arrived. Now they're the defending champions, looking to get in a groove before the playoffs begin.

While the first period was sluggish, as the shoveling crew worked overtime to clear the snow from the ice, Patrick Sharp ignited the crowd with a post-clanging goal off a perfect Toews assist.

"I honestly thought that was the game, 1-0," Sharp said. "The way the conditions were out there, it was tough to get the puck anywhere near the net, and those guys defend well. So our team took this game seriously. We wanted to win. But at the same time, we were out there having fun."

In the second period, Toews scored with a beautiful display of stick handling, followed by a ridiculously threaded cross-ice pass from Kane to Versteeg to give the Blackhawks a 3-0 lead going into the third period.

"Just drive the net, put your stick down and a guy like Kane is going to find you when he can," Versteeg said. "It was a great pass."

The Blackhawks were coming off a loss in New York following the Sochi Olympics and entered Saturday tied atop the Central Division with St. Louis. The Blues made a blockbuster trade for goalie Ryan Miller on Friday night, a deal that got the Hawks' attention.

Still, it didn't sound like there was a lot of chalk talk between periods. This game was about trusting their skills and living in the moment.

"I think we kept it really simple early on in the game and just threw pucks down the ice and chased after them," Toews said. "We were getting them and we were throwing everything on net."

"There was no real system or structure to our game," Sharp said. "We were hoisting the puck around and slapping it around and having fun doing it."

Fun. There's that word again. For as much as this kind of game is about marketing and TV ratings, and those precious two points, when you strip everything away, it's all about that three-letter word.

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