CHICAGO - It wouldn't be a big NHL event without the Detroit Red Wings stealing the show.
An enthusiastic crowd turned up at Wrigley Field and national TV audiences watched in two countries as the Red Wings beat the Chicago Blackhawks 6-4 in a memorable Winter Classic on Thursday. The defending Stanley Cup champions have made a habit of shining in the spotlight. They started slow against the upstart Blackhawks in this one before turning it on and scoring five unanswered goals.
"It's tough for us to sit up here and talk about how good the Wings are, but they're the best team in the league," said Blackhawks forward Patrick Sharp. "We've had two-goal leads in three of the four games we've played against them (this season) and they managed to keep coming and fight back."
It was the 701st time the teams had met but this one was unlike any of the others.
Fighter jets flew over the stadium, fireworks were set off during the American national anthem and team flags blew in the wind at the top of the yellow foul poles.
On top of all that, a noisy crowd of 40,818 jammed the nearly century-old stadium and hundreds more watched from adjacent rooftops as the NHL headed back out in the elements.
This was officially an event, much more than just another stop on a long 82-game schedule.
"We talked a lot about taking it all in," said Red Wings coach Mike Babcock. "You've got to enjoy the moment. We talked about that last year during the Stanley Cup playoffs too.
"I really believe you should enjoy the process."
Jiri Hudler lead the way offensively for the Red Wings with two goals and an assist. Mikael Samuelsson, Pavel Datsuyk, Brian Rafalski and hometown boy Brett Lebda also scored for Detroit (25-7-5).
Kris Versteeg, Martin Havlat, Ben Eager and Duncan Keith replied for the Blackhawks (20-8-7), who have lost all four games they've played against the Wings this season.
This would have been considered an entertaining hockey game if it were played in any of the league's 30 hockey stadiums, making it a major success in this setting. The play was fast and physical - easily the best of the three regular season games the NHL has held outdoors.
The Winter Classic has quickly developed into a fantastic news story for a league that can really use one, particularly as it continues to gauge where it stands in a slumping economy. There appears to be reason for some optimism.
"In a tough environment, we've sold a number of sponsorships over the last three or four months leading up to this event," said commissioner Gary Bettman. "This event activates very well because it's really special. It's unique in the way that it takes the game back to its roots.
"It's unique in the way players react to it because it's so special to be there on the ice."
The temperature was about 0 C when the puck was dropped but it felt much colder because of a stiff wind that blew across the ice surface. Some players sported neck warmers to combat the cold, but many simply stuck to wearing thicker undergarments.
The atmosphere around the stadium was electric. Jersey-clad fans filled bars in the local Wrigleyville neighbourhood more than two hours before the game and spilled on to West Addison Street.
When the Red Wings team bus pulled up to the stadium, the visitors were greeted by a loud chant of "Detroit sucks! Detroit sucks!"
The same refrain was repeated when the Detroit players walked out of the visitor's dugout to take the warmup before the game. Even though there were many Red Wings supporters in attendance, they were largely drowned out until the third period.
"My favourite part was coming out of the dugout and seeing the crowd, seeing the excitement on people's faces and hearing the crowd noise too," said Red Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom. "Just sucking everything in once you stepped on the field."
It was impossible to miss the ballpark feel. The smell of hotdogs wafted through the stadium while the pitcher's mound and home plate were left exposed for the first hockey game ever played here.
Fans in the lower section of the stadium and bleachers stood all afternoon, trying to improve their low-angle view. The sightlines were much better for the pricier seats in the upper deck.
Even though the action was tougher to follow than it would be at the United Center, the feel of the event more than made up for it. The roar that accompanied Brent Seabrook's early hit that sent Dan Cleary into the Chicago bench could easily have come during a ninth-inning rally by the beloved Cubs.
"I had a blast," said Lidstrom. "I think all the NHL players should have a chance to play in something like this and be part of something like this."
There's little doubt that the league will be holding another outdoor game on New Year's Day in 2010. Several teams have already expressed interest and a few more will probably be getting in line after watching how well this one went.
The only disappointment for the Blackhawks was the outcome.
Ice guru Dan Craig and his team clearly benefitted from the extra time they had to prepare the surface at Wrigley Field. The puck didn't bounce nearly as much as it did last year in Buffalo - although there was no snowfall during this game - and the players were able to make plays as a result.
"It was probably better than it is in some of our rinks," said Bettman.
Hudler scored both of his goals from almost the same spot during the second period. He was parked at the right edge of the crease when he knocked the puck behind Cristobal Huet at 1:14 and 12:43.
The defending Stanley Cup champions began flexing their muscles in the second half of the game, showing why they will likely be the team to beat again this season. Datsuyk put his team ahead 4-3 after splitting the Chicago defence and beating Huet with a backhand deke at 17:17.
By then, the tide had turned.
"They're not fun to play against," said Blackhawks forward Patick Kane. "They have the puck the whole game."
The final piece of evidence that this was a special event came when very few people headed to the exits with the home team trailing by a couple of goals late in the game.
Most of the fans stuck around and cheered to the bitter end, undeterred by the 6-4 score displayed on the manual green scoreboard in centre field.
Notes: Conklin took a bathroom break during a TV timeout in the third period ... Actor Vince Vaughn was among the celebrities in attendance ... Former Cubs pitcher Fergie Jenkins of Chatham, Ont., was among the Chicago sports legends honoured before the game ... Gravenhurst, Ont., was featured during the first intermission of NBC's coverage because the Blackhawks travelled to the town earlier this season for the funeral of GM Dale Tallon's father.