Chicago Blackhawks forward Kris Versteeg is an experienced veteran now, but he'll never forget the game he played as a rookie Jan. 1, 2009 at Wrigley Field.
Versteeg took the ice that day with the Blackhawks to face the rival Detroit Red Wings in the 2009 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic. He wound up scoring the game's first goal 3:24 into the first period in what turned out to be a back-and-forth game won by Detroit 6-4 in cold, overcast conditions.
As the Blackhawks prepare to face the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday at Soldier Field (8 p.m. ET, NBC) in the final game of the 2014 Coors Light Stadium Series, Versteeg and others who played at Wrigley are reminded of that game five years ago.
"I remember a lot," Versteeg said Monday. "I remember getting ready in the locker room and coming out side-by-side with Detroit. It was kind of like soccer ... how they come out holding hands [with youth players] and then all of a sudden they're enemies."
He also recalls the feeling in his legs as fighter jets roared past during the pregame build-up, not to mention his excitement at scoring the game's first goal.
"It was a pretty overwhelming experience," Versteeg said. "The first goal was pretty exciting too. Everyone was like, 'Who's going to score it? [Patrick] Kane? [Jonathan] Toews? [Pavel] Datsyuk? [Henrik] Zetterberg? ... Versteeg? What the [heck]?' It was just a great experience overall. Obviously it wasn't the result we wanted so hopefully we can change that against the Penguins."
They also would like to change the weather forecast. It's currently calling for frigid temperatures for the 7 p.m. local time puck drop, but Versteeg knows the chill won't keep the fans away.
"I don't know how much I'd like sitting out in the freezing cold, but people love it and I can see why," he said. "I know my brother and my family came last time [to Wrigley] and they loved it even though they were freezing."
They liked it so much, in fact, that it didn't take long for Versteeg's brother to mention the Soldier Field game after he was re-acquired by the Blackhawks in a trade with the Florida Panthers.
"That was one of the first things my brother brought up, the [game] that will be coming up," Versteeg said. "He actually reminded me about it right away, right when I got traded. That was pretty much the first thing he told me so obviously I had to get him a ticket."
Blackhawks defenseman Brent Seabrook also is looking forward to going back outside for some hockey. Seabrook played at Wrigley in 2009, but now he has a wife, Dana, and young son, Carter.
The family skate at Soldier Field prior to this game might be even more meaningful to him than last time.
"I think so," Seabrook said. "I think getting Carter out there will be fun, to have him out on the ice and whatnot with my wife. It will be cool. Dana wasn't with me for the first game so she'll be able to share it this time and it'll be fun."
It will be yet another installment in the scrapbook of his career, which he and those closest with him can share as memories.
"The whole thing was a great experience," Seabrook said of playing at Wrigley. "From practice day to being there early and looking out to see the crowd fill up, some of the memories my friends have from their vantage point and stuff like that is just cool to think back on and listen to every once in a while in the summer when we talk about stuff. The whole thing was a lot of fun. It was a great event and I think everybody's looking forward to Soldier Field."
Seabrook played a big part in one of the most memorable moments from the 2009 Winter Classic, one that nearly gave Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville a bad memory. Asked what stands out most about that game, Quenneville began with Seabrook's early hard check on Detroit forward Daniel Cleary that sent Cleary toppling into the Chicago bench.
"Right off the bat, [Seabrook] hitting their guy right into the bench ... I almost got hit in the head with a skate or a stick there," Quenneville said. "That was right off the bat. The pace was real. [We] had a great first period, obviously an ugly second period, but at the end of the day it was the coolest game you could be a part of. I think this [game] will definitely make it go to the next level."
Seabrook concurred, pointing out that Soldier Field holds about 20,000 more people than Wrigley Field.
"It'll definitely be different," he said. "When you play the game sometimes you don't really hear that. You're focused on the game and what you're doing, but it's definitely cool when there's a whistle or a TV timeout. You look up and see the crowd and see how many people are there. I've watched football games there and I've been on the field and stuff. It's pretty neat to see all the people."
It's an experience Quenneville relishes.
Quenneville said all involved in these games should cherish the opportunity to take it outdoors, even if they do it multiple times. Not everybody gets to experience it in their NHL careers, but both teams Saturday will have a number of people who have done it before. It will be the second outdoor game for the Blackhawks, the third for the Penguins.
"It's almost like you wish everybody that's in the League or coaches in the League could get a chance to be a part of a game in a setting like we had [at Wrigley Field]," Quenneville said. "So it's going to be a special day [at Soldier Field]. We'll get to feel it on Friday as well [for practice] ... and it's going to be nippy [then], as well."
As for the challenges presented by conditions outdoors, Quenneville is hoping for snow instead of wind. There wasn't much of either in 2009, but gusting winds off nearby Lake Michigan on Saturday could make it a tough day for everybody involved.
"Not being out there in that environment with the snow, I just think that it would be a very fun environment for everybody if it does snow," Quenneville said. "The wind is probably not much fun ... not as much fun, including the fans."
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