Outdoor hockey, in a few classic steps

From Las Vegas to Wrigley Field, the game of hockey's outdoor experience has produced some frosty memories.

James Creighton took the game indoors 133 years ago for a reason: it was cold outside

Workers prepare the rink at Wrigley Field for the NHL Winter Classic hockey game on New Year's Day. ((M. Spencer Green/Associated Press))

It was back in March of '75 — 1875, to be exact — that engineer James Creighton and a bunch of his friends in Montreal had an idea.

Tired of freezing toes and runny noses, and having gazed wistfully at the Victoria Skating Club's beautiful indoor rink for a while, they decided it was time to take this new game of ice hockey into more civilized climes.

Out of the ice and snow, as it were.

Fascinating to wonder what Creighton, one of the key people in the development of the world's fastest game, might think if he knew about the National Hockey League's recent interest in returning to the wind, weather and warm mitts of yesteryear.

Likely something along the lines of: "Are they out of their ruddy minds?"

Be that as it may, we're heading out to the infield of historic Wrigley Field on New Year's Day where the Detroit Red Wings and the hometown Chicago Blackhawks will tug on the tuques and drop the puck for the 2009 Winter Classic.

How did we get here? Like this:

The 'Sunny days/Any excuse to go gambling' Classic

Los Angeles Kings' owner Bruce McNall thought he could get some great publicity for his NHL team by holding a pre-season game against the New York Rangers outdoors, preferably somewhere that would produce great publicity.

Temperature, the ice makers told him, was apparently no object.

So out to the famous parking lot (home of numerous huge boxing events and Evil Knievel's famous motorcycle jump gone bad) of Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas they all went on Sept. 28, 1991, where the thermometer pushed over 80 degrees and about 13,000 people in shorts and T-shirts put down their gambling chips long enough to take in the pre-season action.

Creighton would have approved. Hockey, a warm afternoon and, let's face it, what self-respecting engineer wouldn't love being surrounded by casinos?

It would take 10 years for someone else to pick up on the idea.

The 'Can anyone tell what those ants are doing on that ice?' Classic

Hockey clubs at Michigan State and the University of Michigan had called their games the Cold War for many years, so it seemed natural to take it outside.

Not in the winter, you understand — you'd have to be nuts to try it in, say, January — but in October, when the weather wouldn't be too bad, it could work.

So on Oct. 6, 2001, the two heated rivals took to the ice at Spartan Stadium where 74,554 spectators (many of whom weren't spectating much of anything given how far away they sat) greeted them raucously.

That total broke the previous world attendance record for a hockey game set in 1957 when Sweden played the Soviet Union outdoors in Moscow for the gold medal at the world championships.

Michigan State and Michigan tied 3-3 and it certainly was an event.

Gordie Howe dropped the first puck, country singer Shannon Brown sang during the first intermission and everyone had a great time watching the cheerleaders perform in their sweatsuits and tuques.

Guess what professional hockey league noticed all those people having a good time?

The 'Let's find a gig for Paulina Gretzky' Classic

Jose Theodore made a fashion statement by adding a tuque to the top of his goalie mask when he skated out for the Heritage Classic in 2003. ((Tom Hanson/Canadian Press))
Who knew more than 57,000 people would pile into Edmonton's Commonwealth Stadium to hear a one-song concert by Wayne and Janet's daughter?

Sing along with us…

"I will remember you…"

This whole wonderful weekend was a big love-in for the old Edmonton Oilers by the local faithful who, by extension, wound up giving a big boost to the current club that needed both money and attention.

Sure, the NHL fudged the date a little by playing on Nov. 22 instead of the middle of January, but Mother Nature tossed a curve ball anyway as she rocketed the temperature downwards. With the wind chill factored in, it felt like –30 C.

Hey, this was northern Alberta, fella, and the crowd could have cared less.

"Will you remember me?…"

Wayne took advantage of the moment by pulling on his old 99 Oilers gear and leading Marc and Glenn and everyone out for the MegaStars contest with a bunch of old Montreal Canadiens.

It was a chance to rediscover those days when they were the Boys on the Bus. Many a tear fell on that afternoon. Many of those tears instantly froze on everyone's faces.

"Don't let your life pass you by…"

They had to play an actual National Hockey League-type game, however, and the Montreal Canadiens beat Edmonton 4-3 with Jose Theodore skating into the Habs' goal wearing a tuque on top of his mask, thus setting off a fashion trend among hosers everywhere.

Remember, this was the first outdoor game that actually counted in the standings ever played by the league, going right back to its founding in 1917.

And did they have a great time? Theodore won it, played great, and admitted afterwards it had been fun. For about two minutes. After that it was freakin' cold.

"Weep not for the memories…"

Why weep? This was the best thing to happen to the NHL in years. Let's do it again, they all exclaimed.

And thanks to Sarah McLachlan for the lyrics.

The Bob Johnson/Vince Lombardi Classic

Off went the NCAA to the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis., where they did the reasonable thing by building an ice rink on it.

Not like the one in January of 1967 that hosted the National Football League championship game between the Green Bay Packers of coach Vince Lombardi, and the Dallas Cowboys — that was more a natural thing caused by the dropping of the temperature to –25 C, which felt like –36 C with the wind chill.

This was artificial ice, baby, and the Ohio State Buckeyes played the Wisconsin Badgers on it in front of more than 40,000 people who know, by birthright, how to dress for the cold.

Except it wasn't that cold for Green Bay. It was –3 C, close to Las Vegas temperatures.

Wisconsin won 4-3 and the ghost of Badger Bob Johnson must have been beaming with pride. 

The biggest difference between the hockey game and that famous Ice Bowl football contest, by the way, is the referees' whistles worked. You could look it up.

The 'I wanna drive the Zamboni' Classic

Buffalo Sabres and Pittsburgh Penguins stand for the national anthem at the start of the NHL Winter Classic outdoor hockey game at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, N.Y., last January. ((David Duprey/Associated Press) )
This was the first true Winter Classic, because it was the first actually held in the winter — Jan. 1, 2008, to be exact — at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo, N.Y.

A new NHL attendance record was set as 71,217 people packed into the stadium for a chance to see the Pittsburgh Penguins, with star Sidney Crosby, take on the Buffalo Sabres.

Oh, and watch the Zamboni go back and forth … and back and forth … and back and forth …

And the rink guys who filled the holes in the ice run back and forth … and back and forth … and back and forth ...

Inevitably, for the first time in any of these outings it started to snow heavily as the game went on and by the third period they had to keep dragging out the Zamboni to scrape the ice clear so the puck would move.

The contest ended in classic style with Crosby scoring in the shootout to clinch a 2-1 win for the Penguins (and really, how appropriate is it the flightless birds of the Antarctic should do that?) and everyone went home frozen and happy.

Critics howled about the ice conditions and the wind and the snow, but the NHL saw none of that.

No, Gary Bettman and the boys saw all the tickets sell out in 42 minutes. They saw NBC get the best ratings for televised hockey in the U.S. in a dozen years.

They saw money to be made!

So, here we are in Chicago.