The Chicago Blackhawks skate during practice a day before playing against the Detroit Red Wings in the NHL Winter Classic at Wrigley Field. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
CHICAGO - The continued rejuvenation of NHL hockey in Chicago was building to a fever’s pitch the night before the 2009 Winter Classic.
And all you had to do to understand that was talk to a man who knows quite a bit about Chicago sports. And even more about pitches.
“It looks like (the Blackhawks are) back on track,” legendary Cubs pitcher Ferguson Jenkins told THN.com Wednesday night as he arrived in town to play a small part in the NHL’s Winter Classic game between the Hawks and Red Wings.
The game takes place Thursday at 1 p.m. EST in Wrigley Field – a ballpark Jenkins called home when he played with the storied Cubs franchise from 1966-73 and again from 1982-83.
“You know, when I was pitching here, the Hawks used to have reliable fans for every single game,” said Jenkins, the 1971 Cy Young winner, seven-time 20-game winner and first Canadian-born member of baseball’s Hall of Fame. “It looks like (Hawks president and former Cubs president) John McDonough’s marketing plans are really helping them get back to that point. And that’s great, because I was here when it was just the Original Six teams playing, and the team was very popular.
“Of course, players leave, and organizations don’t play as well sometimes and that didn’t help the Blackhawks over the years. But it looks like the organization is hitting its stride again, and people are feeling good about the team. That’s great for hockey in this city.”
The 65-year-old Jenkins, who lives outside Phoenix and makes his way out to a few Coyotes games a year, won’t be the only Chicago legend in attendance at the Winter Classic. Hockey giants Ted Lindsay and Bobby Hull are scheduled to meet at center ice for the opening faceoff festivities – and there could be a few surprise appearances in store.
“I don’t know they’re going to do (anything official) with me,” Jenkins said. “But I’m hearing (Chicago Bears all-time great) Gale Sayers might be here as well, and maybe (famous Bears lineman Dick) Butkus. It’s just going to be great for me to be a part of it.”
Judging by the talk around town, it isn’t only hockey fans excited to see an outdoor game.
“I think interest in hockey in Chicago did go away for a while, but there’s no doubt Blackhawks hockey is back,” said Rob Dalton, a bartender at Timothy O’Toole’s Pub.
Added native Chicagoan Darren Morgan, a 26-year-old teacher: “Me and about 20 of my buddies are stoked as hell about the Hawks and the Wrigley game. Having young kid superstars like (Patrick) Kane and Jonathan Toews playing here is fantastic enough and helps to build interest, but to me it was a total stroke of genius to get a game going at one of the most famous baseball stadiums there ever was. Why they didn’t think of this sooner is beyond me.”
According to Dalton, interest in the Hawks and the NHL picked up once the team’s games began being aired regularly on area cable TV networks last year. That development, combined with the fact the outdoor game comes against a hated rival such as the Wings, has heightened the anticipation for Thursday’s game to heights not seen since – well, since Jenkins was on the mound throwing strikes for the Cubs.
“You see a lot of new Hawks jerseys around now, on a lot of young faces,” Dalton said. “And because the Hawks are playing the Red Wings, it’s going to be even more fun. Usually, you’d see a bunch of Red Wings fans come into Chicago for a regular game, but c’mon – playing an NHL game at Wrigley, on New Year’s Day? It’s going to be crazy out there.”