Chicago's Patrick Kane in Washington (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)
The Blackhawks franchise has been transformed in the past seven years and with that organizational success comes fringe benefits. That's how Chicago earned a third straight season of outdoor hockey.
One of several big announcements made by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman on Saturday afternoon was the slate of outdoor games for the 2015-16 season. Montreal will take on Boston at the New England Patriots' Gillette Stadium, Detroit will travel to Coors Field to face the host Colorado Avalanche and Chicago will venture out to the University of Minnesota's TCF Bank Stadium to take on the Wild.
As soon as the Blackhawks were announced as competitors, the Internet crowd got a bit jealous. After all, there are still nine NHL teams that have never played in an outdoor game and don't have one scheduled right now: Arizona, Carolina, Columbus, Dallas, Florida, Nashville, St. Louis, Tampa Bay and Winnipeg. The Jets could have hosted a fourth outdoor game next year, but an agreement could not be reached with the CFL's Blue Bombers over a stadium date (Bettman hoped that 2016-17 would work now).
The Hawks are already on outdoor game No. 4 now. So why Chicago again?
According to the commissioner, some teams are better constructed to play these marquee games and the Hawks are one such organization.
"We're happy to have them," Bettman said. "We're thrilled. They're a national draw."
Indeed, under the tutelage of owner Rocky Wirtz and the team he has assembled from the front office on down, Chicago has been a perennial Stanley Cup contender in the past five years and winner of the ultimate chalice twice. If you need any evidence of the team's popularity, just look at the all-stars voted in by the fans this year: Five of the six were Hawks and if Chicago had a Latvian player, it could have been a clean sweep (Marians Hossas, perhaps?).
“We're a marketable team," said Patrick Kane. "We've had success in recent years and we have players that are fun to watch, especially in a primetime game. We enjoy it. We take great pride in being one of the faces of the league and it's an honor...I mean, three in a row – it's not something you would expect.”
Cue the grumbling from the peanut gallery.
But there is something to say for having marquee teams. The NBA has been dining out on that concept for years, usually to great success. And Chicago has built up some great rivalries recently because the Hawks are a team that others use as a measuring stick for success. While the Minnesota Wild have been a disappointment this season, the squad certainly has the talent to be back near the top next season, making this showdown one with some bite.
“It's a divisional opponent, we've seen them twice in the playoffs and who knows what will transpire this year?" Kane said. "That rivalry has grown for sure. Minnesota is a great hockey state and the fans enjoy it up there.”
Of course, Minnesota in the dead of winter could get a little chilly. The game is scheduled for Feb. 21, a time in which the temperature could easily be minus-7 Celsius, (or 18 degrees Fahrenheit) or potentially much colder. That's a far cry from Chicago's past outdoor game this season in temperate Washington.
“Yeah, I was thinking about that," Kane said with a smile. "Might be a little cooler than Washington. You enjoy it, though. You're outside playing a hockey game. You feel like a kid again playing on the pond: Even if you're cold, you still want to play with your buddies even when people are telling you to go home.”
And based on how the Hawks have drawn in the past, Bettman certainly isn't going to tell them to pack it in anytime soon.