Stadium Series game puck at Soldier Field before the Blackhawks vs Penguins… (Lenny Gilmore / RedEye )
AUSTIN, Texas It's been 11 days since the Blackhawks invaded Soldier Field as a snowstorm hammered Chicago. That seemed more distant this weekend, when reps from the team and the NHL headed to South by Southwest to discuss the Stadium Series.
We loved rolling in the snow outside the stadium, watching crews frantically clearing the ice with shovels and scrolling through Instagram pics of beer so cold it turned to slush. But how did the game come to be? And will the Hawks do it again? We hit SXSW to find out.
Hawks fans flocked to Wrigley Field on Jan. 1, 2009, for the second NHL Winter Classic. A year earlier the NHL had launched the annual outdoor game in Buffalo, selling out the Bills' Ralph Wilson Stadium in hours. Could they do it again?
"What Chicago showed us is it is sustainable," said Brian Jennings, the league's executive VP of marketing. "We went into Wrigley and we filled the house and we had that epic day against the Red Wings, and it showed that we were on to something."
The Winter Classic continued for the next three seasons, but the 2013 edition was canceled by the players' strike. Worried that fans had lost interest, the league planned six outdoor games in 2014, including one at Soldier Field.
Dean Matsuzaki was in charge of building six outdoor rinks, from L.A. to Yankee Stadium. Matsuzaki, the NHL senior VP of events and entertainment, bought an extra set of pumps, heaters and rigs and dispatched crews across the country.
At Dodger Stadium, the league set up a beach volleyball court and had a barbecue in the outfield, but things were different here. To pump the ice from a truck in the parking lot into Soldier Field, workers installed a booster pump halfway through the system.
The week before the game, temperatures dipped into single digits and the ice got too cold, became brittle and began to flake away. The crew added an inline heater to keep the rink warm at night.
"This year in Chicago particularly, Mother Nature threw everything at us," Matsuzaki said.
Hawks CEO John McDonough wanted one thing from the Hawks in the Olympics: A gold medal. He watched each game nervously, afraid someone might sprain a knee or tear a shoulder, but also hoped to see Chicago players on the podium.
He was looking for momentum, and so was the NHL.
"The Olympics is big sacrifice for our owners. We're a little bit tortured by it," Jennings said. "The exposure we get from it—our players love to play for their countries—is vitally important. We want to show our owners that participating in the Olympics is good for our business."
The trip to Soldier Field was positioned to bridge fans' appetite for the NHL from the Olympic break to the Stanley Cup playoffs. McDonough got the gold medal he wanted when Duncan Keith, Patrick Sharp and Jonathan Toews won with Team Canada. From there, the team's attention quickly shifted to March 1.
"Everybody had their eye on the bull's-eye coming back and playing in this outdoor game," he said. "Since the Stanley Cup championship, this is really the game everybody had targeted, even the players going to the Olympics. They didn't know what to expect."
Yes, there was a plan B.
As snow blanketed Chicago and visibility shrunk around Soldier Field, NHL officials had the options of delaying the game, rescheduling for the following day or pushing ahead. A team of meteorologists tracked the storm, and crews on the ground and around the country weighed in.
But the game went on.
"It was almost as if at 5:30 [p.m.] someone said, 'Cue the snow machine and hit it hard,'" McDonough said.
The Stadium Series game was the highest-rated broadcast in Blackhawks regular-season history. The games in Dodger Stadium were so well-attended they sold out of beer. Even the players' families raved about how much fun they had.
"We didn't realize that the atmosphere was going to be as electric as it was, as dynamic as it was," McDonough said. "It was one of a handful of events I've been party to where you wake up the next morning and say, 'Did that really happen? Did that really come together like that?' I think the two Stanley Cups were certainly that, but that game lived up to everything and more."
Courtney Linehan is RedEye's managing editor for content.
Want more? Discuss this article and others on RedEye Sports' Facebook page.