SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The collective eye roll from hockey fans was enough to stir the faux snow placed around the NHL’s Winter Classic rink.
The Chicago Blackhawks? In another outdoor game? Aren’t there, like, 30 other teams in this league?
The 2019 Winter Classic at Notre Dame Stadium marks the sixth time the Blackhawks have competed in an NHL outdoor affair, and the fourth time in 11 Winter Classics, more than any other franchise. They’re 1-4 in those games, which makes the whole thing feel like hockey fans are being force-fed something rancid.
“It’s, like, one every other year. But it’s always fun,” said winger Patrick Kane.
While the apathy about the Blackhawks playing in the open air is palpable, it might also be misplaced when it comes to this iteration of the team. There are well over a dozen players on the roster who have never appeared in an outdoor hockey game for any team, let alone Chicago. For hockey fans, the Blackhawks playing at Notre Dame Stadium is more of the same; for them, it’s something completely fresh.
“A lot of us here have never played outdoors before. Haven’t had that luxury,” said forward Alex DeBrincat, 21. “Pretty exciting for the young guys. I’m sure [the veterans] are excited, too. But not as much as much us.”
For forward Dylan Strome, 21, the opportunity to play in the Winter Classic was one of the first things that sprung to his mind after the Blackhawks acquired him from a team that wasn’t exactly high on the NHL’s waiting list for an outdoor game, the Arizona Coyotes.
“You never think about playing in an outdoor game. I’ve played on some outdoor rinks, but minor hockey doesn’t have many outdoor rinks. I don’t think parents want to sit outside for two hours, freezing, to watch their kids play,” he said.
For Strome, one of the coolest aspects of the experience was all the free swag the players collect during the outdoor games. He said his mother will get his Winter Classic jacket. He intends to keep much of it for himself.
The influx of younger players for the Blackhawks is both a function of their roster reconstruction, following some capped-out and unsuccessful seasons, and the overall trend of the NHL.
“It’s a young man’s league,” said GM Stan Bowman. “I don’t know if it’s true, but someone told me there’s 50 teenagers in the league this year. When that happens, there’s a cause and effect: The guys that are moving out are the older players.”
It’s not just the younger players that are getting their first chilly taste of outdoor game glory.
“You see a lot of these guys that haven’t played in these games and they’re so excited about it. But even a guy like Cam Ward, who’s had a great career and has never played in a game like this before, is taking it all in,” said Kane.
Ward, 34, signed as a free agent with the Blackhawks after tending goal for the Carolina Hurricanes from 2005 through 2018, winning the Stanley Cup and the Conn Smythe in his rookie season.
“As a pro, you think about all the great things you’ve been able to do, and this is one of them that I haven’t been able to check off,” he said.
Like Strome with the Coyotes, Ward wasn’t likely to get a shot in an outdoor game with the Hurricanes, due to the NHL’s limited scope of participants in the Winter Classic and Stadium Series. Does Ward, who will start the Classic for the Blackhawks, believe this is only shot at playing in an outdoor stadium?
“I can answer that for you: I’m not going to get another shot,” he said with a laugh. “This is my shot. I’ve been around a long time, and I know this is going to be my first and only attempt at doing it. You don’t want to take it for granted. You want to soak it all in. I’ve got my family here. We’re taking a lot of pictures. I’m just like everyone else.”
It’s the memories that keep these events fresh for the veterans, whether it’s playing with their children in the dressing room or skating with the Wounded Warriors in practice, as the Blackhawks did on Monday morning. Then there’s the location of the game, in the shadow of the golden dome: Many of Chicago’s star players have watched football games at Notre Dame, where the Blackhawks hold their training camp. Few imagined they’d play a hockey game there.
“I watched ‘Rudy’ a lot as a kid,” said Kane, who added that the Fighting Irish men’s hockey team recruited him before he joined the OHL London Knights. “I considered college. I was in high school when Jeff Jackson, the coach at Notre Dame, called me. One of his first questions was, ‘How are your grades?’ So I knew I probably wasn’t coming to Notre Dame.”
Beyond the pageantry of the Winter Classic, there’s a competitive aspect for the Blackhawks as well. They’re attempting to turn their season around, sitting seven points out of the final wild-card spot. They’re attempting to win their first Winter Classic. And they’re attempting to grab a W against another Original Six team in front of what could be a crowd of 70,000 fans — a big game, bringing out a big effort from the players. Or so their coach hopes.
“We have a lot of young blood coming through,” said Jeremy Colliton, who is coaching in his first outdoor game. “They’re going to be excited, and that’ll carry over to the older guys. It’s like a tournament feel. We’re in hotels. We’re bussing to practice. There’s a lot of media. They’re competitive guys. They want to win. We have some momentum going here. They know their record [in outdoor games], and I’m sure they’ll be excited to make a difference.”