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THN at the Winter Classic: Great event signifies Chicago's renaissance

CHICAGO - The Detroit Red Wings celebrate after Pavel Datsyuk scored a second period goal against the Chicago Blackhawks during the NHL Winter Classic at Wrigley Field. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

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CHICAGO - The Detroit Red Wings celebrate after Pavel Datsyuk scored a second period goal against the Chicago Blackhawks during the NHL Winter Classic at Wrigley Field. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

CHICAGO – If the Blackhawks organization and the NHL were looking to come away from the Winter Classic outdoor game at Wrigley Field with a sense of grand achievement, mission accomplished.

That much was readily apparent more than three hours before the event Thursday afternoon, when the streets outside the home of Major League Baseball’s Cubs, co-opted on the first day of 2009 to help the Blackhawks continue to re-establishing their bond with the city, stretched at the seams with energy and anticipation.

The sense of wonder and fun most definitely didn’t end there. Sure, the overall aura of the Winter Classic wound up mitigated by the Hawks’ 6-4 loss to their archrivals from Detroit, but if there was one day that was about more than just the final boxscore, this was the day.

In fact, it was the numerous small touches put on by the Hawks – a pre-game salute to some of Chicago’s greatest athletes (including Ryne Sandberg, Tony Esposito, Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita); the team flags atop each foul pole; the much-welcomed organ music; the gorgeous, specialized jerseys of each team; the old-school fedoras donned by the Red Wings coaches – that together provided an ambiance and experience nobody in the massive crowd of 40,818 is likely ever to forget.

By the time the first puck dropped – with an outdoor temperature of 31.9 degrees Fahrenheit – the fans’ pent-up energy was coursing through the stands like a virus everyone intended to contract.

And from there, the Wings and Blackhawks put on a fast-paced, spirited, wholly entertaining on-ice show that was at once markedly physical and yet thankfully not filled with over-the-top goon theatrics.

It was the best the NHL had to offer: two superbly skilled teams swept up by a playoff atmosphere and rivalry steeped in tradition and mutual loathing. It was a back-and-forth affair featuring all kinds of expected talent displays and even some unexpected ones (most notably a wraparound goal that, if only for a millisecond, made Hawks enforcer Ben Eager look like the second coming of Doug Gilmour).

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Best of all, it was another episode of what ought to be an extended series of karmic payback for Hawks fans who’ve suffered through some of the most unwarranted woes of any fan base in any sport.

That’s all I could think of as I watched the fans (and even the workers who helped prepare the stadium) enjoying the afternoon. This was their spoonful of sugar to make up for the medicine forced down their collective neck for too long.

As someone who grew up with Harold Ballard’s Maple Leafs, I found it easy to empathize. For too many seasons, and like too many Hawks fans, I had grown accustomed to decades of BillWirtzian misery and the indulging of antiquated business principles at the expense of Stanley Cup contention. And for the better part of the last decade, I’d become almost expectant of the pained emails Chicagoans always sent along whenever I wrote about their unfortunate plight.

Well, thanks to owner Rocky Wirtz and team president John McDonough, those days are over. Other than the final score, there wasn’t the least bit of negativity to be found on New Year’s Day at Wrigley Field – only a fantastic mixture of old and young, of neophyte hockey fans and fans familiar to the sport, of a large group of people with genuine hope for the future of their franchise.

As I said just about every time I ripped the team’s ownership and management over the years, I couldn’t be more pleased to see the Hawks’ turnaround.

The NHL and Blackhawks both have done a lot of things wrong over the years. The 2009 Winter Classic was not one of them.

Congrats to all involved.

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