CHICAGO | To Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins players, the ice on the Soldier Field outdoor rink felt as good as Friday night it appeared, almost glistening to a white sheen under the stadium arc lights.
“It was really good,” said Hawks captain Jonathan Toews, back home after winning the Olympic gold medal for Canada. “It wasn’t chippy. It was soft. Just kind of what you’re used to. That’s one of the things they’re trying to control with the cold weather.”
In wholehearted agreement was Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby, Toews Olympic teammate, who oddly enough has never played against Toews in an NHL game, but will get his chance tonight night when Pittsburgh plays the Blackhawks in the Stadium Series game. Faceoff is scheduled for 7 p.m.
“Ice was awesome,” Crosby said. “We’re the first of anyone to skate on it. I think usually they say it gets a little better with the more guys who skate on it. With this weather, it’s almost perfect. It’s great conditions to make ice.”
Hawks defenseman Duncan Keith rated the ice superior due to clear and not barbarically cold conditions. Tonight, however, might be different with forecast snow during the game.
“(Friday) we skated, the weather was as good as you ask for, with no wind,” Keith said. “It wasn’t too cold when we were skating around. We’ll see what happens (tonight).”
Hawks fourth-liner Brandon Bollig, who might want less-than-ideal ice conditions as a “mucker” slowing up stars like Crosby, was surprised by the smooth surface.
“The ice was a lot better than I thought it would be,” he said. “It was great. I really didn’t notice the difference from a normal rink.”
The Soldier Field wind, however, is another matter, having played havoc with Bears games through the decades. The Penguins experienced more breezes, practicing while the sun was still out in late afternoon.
The wind tends to die down after sunset in any climatic season. So the Hawks did not experience it as much as their visitors. Yet if snow comes, the wind could be a factor for a night game.
“The biggest thing will be the wind,” Crosby said. “Hopefully the wind stays down. Because even there today you could definitely feel when you’re going against it. It was pretty noticeable. I think that would be the only thing you kind of hope stays down.”
Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury sees some compensation for the cold breezes – the comparative coziness of Soldier Field. Even though the 90-year-old stadium is considered small by NFL standards with its 61,000-seat capacity, that size seems just right for an NHL outdoor game.
“It doesn’t feel like people are too far away,” said Fleury. “It seems like they’re pretty close to the ice. It should be fun. It’s still 60,000 people. That’s a lot of people and it should be a good time.”
Most of the stands between the Bears goalposts are actually not much farther away than in the United Center. The steep slope of Soldier Field’s top deck might afford the best view looking down on the ice. Only the lower end-zone seats have a relative poor view of the rink.
The chilled fans won’t have just hockey for diversions before and after Jim Cornelison’s typically stirring rendition of the National Anthem.
Pop/rock band Plain White T’s and the Blues Brothers tribute band Blooze Brothers will take the stage pre-game and during the first and second intermissions, respectively. The Shannon Rovers Irish Pipe Band will provide accompaniment during Hawks and Penguins player introductions before puck drop.
Hawks greats Bobby Hull, Tony Esposito and Denis Savard, and Bears all-timers Dan Hampton and Richard Dent will be saluted in pre-game ceremonies.