September 22, 2014
If you missed it, you missed more than a hockey game. You missed an event.
Soldier Field has hosted more disparate events than any venue in the world, it’s safe to say. From the Dempsey-Tunney fight to the Chicagoland Music Festival. From the College All-Star Game to the U.S. Truck & Tractor Pull competition. From Army-Navy to the Central U.S. Ski Jumping championship.
Rugby, rodeo, tennis, stock-car racing. Operas, horse jumping, polo and a golf driving contest. And the Bears, of course. When they held the National Fire Fighters Tournament here in 1937, they honored three veterans from the Chicago fire, the actual Chicago fire, not the soccer team. A high school football game between Austin and Leo in 1937 drew 125,000 fans.
But until last year, there had never been a hockey game at Soldier Field. Until Saturday night’s Stadium Series game between the Blackhawks and the Penguins, there had never been an NHL game here.
And what an unforgettable event it was. With 17-degree temperatures and blowing snow drifting down, it was a tough night for hockey. But a great event to watch for the 62,921 fans who filled the stadium on the lakefront.
The lasting image of snow at Soldier Field is Wilber Marshall’s fumble return in the waning moments of the 1985 NFC Championship, arguably the greatest moment of joy in the history of Soldier Field. This wasn’t going to top that, it was still just a regular-season hockey game. But there was something about the rink, the snow, the cold, the capacity crowd and Soldier Field that made this a memorable moment.
‘‘I’m proud to be here,’’ said Jon Carpenter, 35, a Hawks fan from Watseka. ‘‘Being a Chicago guy — I grew up in the western suburbs — I don’t think it’s too cold or too warm. It’s perfect.’’
It was a universal feeling.
‘‘Best I’ve ever been to,’’ said Dan O’Malley, 42, a Penguins fan from Pittsburgh. ‘‘You couldn’t ask for a better environment — the crowd, the snow, being out in the cold. The size of the stadium. The amount of people here. To see this kind of game is great.’’
Until about 10 minutes before puck drop, the stands were barely half-full, with fans crowding the indoor concourses trying to keep warm before heading into the elements. But the rush of seeing the ice, the lights and two of the best teams in the NHL was palpable.
The snow — and probably the imbibing of fans unaware that alcohol actually lowers your body temperature — certainly played a part in the merriment. The last time there was this much snow here, Tom Brady and the Patriots obliterated the Bears 36-7.
But that’s where the divide begins. Snow is great for environment and an acceptable element in football. But it’s bad for hockey. While a plodding football team can win a national championship or a Super Bowl, a plodding hockey team is just a plodding hockey team. The snow piled up enough at one point that Duncan Keith looked like he was working an etch-a-sketch in the ice when he tried to carry the puck out of his zone.
But the fans loved it.
‘‘You’ve got to expect some stuff like that,’’ said Bob Miklos, 40, another Penguins fans from Pittsburgh. ‘‘For one game it’s not a big deal.’’
For one game, but for one game only. This was a once-in-a-lifetime event. Now, it’s time to get back to hockey.