With the Hockey City Classic now in our rear view mirror, it's a good opportunity to look back at the Soldier Field doubleheader. Outdoor games have become more prevalent in recent years while the scope of what makes them a success or failure has tightened. The "new factor" of modern-day outdoor games has tightened immensely.
Playing in front of an announced crowd of 52,051 (more on that later) in the shadow of the Chicago skyline, Wisconsin defeated #2 Minnesota 3-2 on Sunday to split their two game series. They were the second team to defeat a top-five opponent following Notre Dame's win over #3 Miami in in the opening game.
(For a full Wisconsin-Minnesota recap, check out Andy Johnson's take over at our Wisconsin SB Nation site Bucky's Fifth Quarter.)
I'm planning on writing about my experience in Chicago and attending the event later in the week or early next week, but for now here are some quick thoughts on the Minnesota-Wisconsin Soldier Field game itself.
Minnesota fans made themselves known in the Windy City
Maybe it's because the Hockey City Classic is Wisconsin's third outdoor game in eight seasons (the Badgers played Ohio State at Lambeau Field in 2006 and Michigan at Camp Randall Stadium in 2010), but it was surprising to see more Gopher fans than Badger fans despite Madison being a 3 hour drive from Chicago. They were everywhere. My section was about 70% maroon and gold with the remaining fans being from Wisconsin or native Chicagoans.
That doesn't mean the Badger fans in attendance were quiet. In fact, it was the opposite when Wisconsin took the lead. Having the two fanbases each proudly singing their own cheers made for an interesting evening, however, the Badgers were less represented for what was technically a home game. Minnesota was playing their first outdoor game of the modern era and the team had fans travel besides alumni who live in Chicago.
Whether I was walking around the city running into random people wearing Gopher gear or finding another group of fans at a bar, Soldier Field felt like Dinkytown South. The only thing missing was the band and an appearance by Goldy.
No issue with the Soldier Field view...
One of the drawbacks of playing a hockey game in a stadium or ballpark is being away from the action. No one has rinkside seats because of the distance between the ice on the field and stands. Even players have to walk 30-50 yards from the bench to the tunnel between periods.
Despite that, I wasn't disappointed with my seats up in the 400 section of Soldier Field. It helps that the once-historic stadium features the second closest seats from the 50 yard line to the sideline. At times I felt like it was just an outdoor press box.
...just an issue with the wind and cold
Other times the wind circling the top of the stadium was too much to handle. The Minnesota-Wisconsin game began with a temperature of 28 degrees at 3:30 p.m. but once the sun set it got cold fast. Even wearing a half-dozen layers barely helped as less-dressed fans headed to the heated bathrooms during intermissions.
It is something to keep in mind for a future event because as everyone knows, Minnesota is cold in the winter.
The Soldier Field ice played more of a role than it should have
Another drawback of outdoor games is the ice conditions compared to an indoor game. In this case, the glare of the sun in the first game and hours of shoveling the ice led to deteriorating conditions as the game went on. Sunday's game almost looked like a tale of two games - the first period where Minnesota could utilize their speed and the latter two periods where the game resembled a shinny contest on the pond (random falls due to ruts included)
Yet that is no excuse for the Gophers losing
The team had plenty of opportunities in the first period, out-shooting Wisconsin 15-6, and made Badger goaltender Joel Rumpel work. The sophomore made some great saves when he was needed and kept Wisconsin in the game during a time when they needed to survive the storm. That play by Rumpel - along with the Badgers making the most of their chances later in the game - had nothing to do with the ice.
Heck, the Gophers were able to outplay Wisconsin in the poor third period ice although the late goals by Seth Ambroz and Zach Budish were too little, too late.
If anything the question that can be taken away from the game is whether or not Minnesota should sit freshman goalie Adam Wilcox (Tampa Bay Lightning) for a game down the stretch. This was the second straight weekend where Wilcox, who has played the most minutes of any freshman goaltender this season, gave up a soft goal or two in the second game. If he needs to take a game off to rest before the WCHA playoffs and NCAA Tournament, there are a few chances in the next couple weeks.
I learned what the Harlem Shake meme is
And was better off not knowing.
Conference points should not be on the line in outdoor games
For the first time in conference history between the Hockey City Classic and the Battles on Ice in Omaha between North Dakota and UNO February 10th there were WCHA games played outside. After seeing both, it's hard to say that they should.
In front of an announced crowd of 13,605 - a disappointing number for a ballpark that seats 24K despite the overwhelming number of fans in green and black jerseys - UND and Nebraska-Omaha had real WCHA stakes on the line that were overshadowed by multiple delays, sun, and rain and ice issues at TD Ameritrade Park that happen in 50 degree temperatures.
(If that isn't bad enough weather-wise, throw in North Dakota's trip back to Grand Forks that featured snow and more obstacles than a Disney movie featuring dogs and cats trying to travel hundreds of miles.)
The Hockey City Classic had less of an issue temperature-wise but, as stated above, the ice still wasn't up to the standards of the other 27 WCHA games. Having the outdoor spectacle be a non-conference game would also have its own set of issues. Any regular season game would deal with Pairwise comparisons yet it's a lesser evil than having the MacNaughton Cup decided by a pair of outdoor contests.
To be fair, neither organizer has any control over the weather. That's just the problem with picking a date in the sand and hoping it works. Oftentimes it does, however, as the people in Omaha saw, there is no guarantee.
Chicago could host a future Big Ten hockey tournament...
...although I think it would have to be a one-off in rotation with St. Paul and Detroit. The Hockey City Classic was able to get 52K fans to travel to a pair of neutral site games and was successful in that regard. While the end result wasn't a full Soldier Field - both games had trouble getting fans from the other teams to watch and left open sections - the atmosphere was fine. A similar tournament on a smaller scale at United Center is not as far-fetched as I would have thought entering the weekend. While not every fanbase would want to travel multiple hours to a neutral site year-in and year-out, a Chicago Big Ten tournament could be a special change of pace every few years.
The Hockey City Classic has also raised the bar on when Minnesota, who still hasn't hosted an outdoor game, will finally do so.
Everyone should experience at least one outdoor game
Win or lose, it's an experience that every hockey fan should cross off their bucket list just as much as the players on the ice.
For more University of Minnesota coverage, check out The Daily Gopher and for University of Wisconsin coverage go to Bucky's Fifth Quarter. You can also follow SB Nation College Hockey on Twitter @sbncollegepuck and like us on Facebook.
Follow Nate on Twitter @gopherstate.