Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

January 11, 2009

Two Bluefielders find hockey heaven at Wrigley Field

By JED LOCKETT

Note: This is the final part of Jed Lockett’s chronicle of a trip with his mother Nora to the National Hockey League Winter Classic, played on Jan. 1 at Chicago’s Wrigley Field.

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BLUEFIELD — Wrigley Field is one of those rare sporting venues that has a certain magic about it. You can feel the history, the tradition and the meaning of the place. Just getting there can be a religious experience.

Wrigleyville is a residential neighborhood that just happens to be the home to one of the most beloved teams in all of sports. Most of the buildings here are houses, many of which have some form of identification as an adoptive home for the Cubs.

The easiest way to get to Wrigley from other parts of the city is via public transportation. We rode the train towards Addison Street. We watched more people got on our car at every stop. Their clothes gave their destination away with many wearing Blackhawks or Red Wings jerseys.

When the blue line train arrived at the Addison station, we got off to catch the bus to the park. Soon three buses quickly pulled up. It was slow going and the closer we got, the more people got off the bus and walked the rest of the way. My mother and I stayed on, where it was warm.

The first thing we noticed about Wrigley was the famous sign at the front of the ball park. The phrase “larger than life” does not begin to describe it. On this cold morning it was framed by banners celebrating the occasion and flags of each of the participating teams.

But we did not have time to enjoy the scenery. When we got out of the bus, the sidewalk in front of the park was packed with people waiting to get inside. As we tried to get in line, a man passed in front of me. I am guessing he was a Blackhawks fan and that he had a beverage or two before coming to the game by his loud statement to me after looking at my Red Wings jacket and hat.

“BOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!”

It would be that kind of day.

When we got inside, the concourse was decorated with banners featuring players from both teams as well as souvenir and concession stands with an array of food and merchandise. The concourse was packed with people, wall-to-wall. It took us a long time to get to our aisle.

Sports fans attending live games are used to getting freebies at special games. This was no exception as we were each handed a white box as we entered that contained a pair of binoculars. Another freebie was waiting for us at our seats. Taped to each chair was a flip card and small package of trading cards inside a plastic bag.

Unfortunately, one of those bags was lying on the ground when my mother took her first step. She slipped and fell into the lap of a lady wearing a white Blackhawks jersey. The woman expressed concern, then immediately helped my mother up. Suddenly, she grabbed my mom by the arm and helped her to our seats. I wish I knew who she was so I could give her the thank you she so richly deserves.

Chicago Blackhawks fans have a tradition that began in 1985 during a playoff series against the Edmonton Oilers. They clap and yell and make as much noise as possible during the national anthem. Two nights earlier in Detroit, a pair of visiting Chicago fans clapped throughout the song and it sounded odd. But when those two were added to an additional 30,000 as well as fireworks, explosions and a flyover from a pair of fighter jets, it made for a breathtaking experience.

This was as much a celebration as a sporting event and the Blackhawks gave their fans much to celebrate in the first period. Kris Versteeg scored the game’s first goal for Chicago on a power play and triggered an eruption at Wrigley.

That noise was reflected by the Chicago fans finding their voice to deliver an unflattering chant towards their Detroit counterparts. After Mikael Samuelsson tied the game, Martin Havlat and Ben Eager sent the Chicago fans into a frenzy twice more in the first period.

The first 20 minutes belonged to Chicago, and the cold was beginning to belong to us. During the first intermission, I went down into one of the concourses to try to find some hand warmers. When I got to the nearest stand and asked the lady if they sold hand warmers, to which she replied, “No.” Suddenly, the guy paying for a purchase next to me turned to me, pulled out a couple packages of “Toasti Toes”, dropped them on the counter next to me and said, “Merry Christmas.”

If he only knew.

Chicago has had its share of great sports moments and reasons to cheer. The first period of the 2009 Winter Classic had to rank high among them. But we will always remember that period as well as the rest of the game not just for the hockey, but for the passion and kindness of the Chicago fans. They made the experience as much as the setting or the game.

Chicago is known as the Second City. But that is far from the case because it will always be near the top of our hearts.

• • •

I had just gotten back to our seats near the end of the first intermission. The crowd stood the entire game, so my mom took the opportunity to sit during the breaks. Thanks to that and a cup of hot chocolate, we were able to warm up for the second period — and were treated to another virtuoso performance.

The Blackhawks would not make it easy. But somehow Jiri Hudler found the Blackhawks’ net early in the period to make the score 3-2. Hudler would soon find the net once again to tie the game. Momentum had swung.

In the last Winter Classic, Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby had two moments to remember. Now it was Datsyuk’s turn. He picked up a pass and skated between two Chicago defenders before beating goalie Cristobal Huet and sliding the puck between the netminder's legs.

This goal was the decisive moment and we celebrated with other Red Wings fans near us. Although it was a Chicago home game, there was a significant presence by the Detroit faithful, a ratio of about three to one.

All the while my mom had covered her face with the scarf I gave her. But her eyes spoke volumes. She was determined to stay out in the cold. She was having far too good of a time.

While people around us were paying $7 for plastic bottles of beer, we waited for the hot chocolate vendor to come back. He finally did in the third period, but not until after the hot dog vendor had gotten there first.

Eating a hot dog at Wrigley Field is a special experience. So was what happened during a stoppage with 7:23 left in the game. We were waiting for play to resume when over the public address system we heard the voice of Blackhawks legend Stan Mikita.

“Blackhawk fans! Let me hear ya! A-one! A-two! A-three!”

The entire ball park knew what to do next.

“Take me out to the ball game! Take me out with the crowd! Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack! I don't care if I ever get back! So it's root, root, root for the BLACK-HAWKS! (Or in our case RED WINGS!) If they don't win it's a shame! For it's one! Two! Three strikes you're out at the old ball game!”

If singing at Wrigley is a religious experience, then that was the equivalent of high mass with the Pope — and a moment we will treasure the rest of our lives.

By this time, Detroit was ahead 6-3 and well on the way to a 6-4 victory. When it was over, my mom and I could not believe we had done it. We had attended the Winter Classic. We lingered for a little while to let the crowd die down and soak in the scenery one final time.

When we got back to our hotel room, we embraced. This was more than a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It was a trip that changed our lives.

• • •

We returned to Bluefield on Jan. 3. I was refreshed and ready to go back to work with a new vigor and a set of stories to tell.

As for my mom, she returned to work on Jan. 5. Her coworkers were anxious to hear her stories and she was just as anxious to relay them. The depression is gone and she has a newfound hope in her life. She is dedicating herself to get back in better health so if she gets the chance to climb the steps to JLA again, she will not have to stop along the way.

Actually, she wants to go back very badly. The night of Jan. 1, she was searching for tickets on StubHub. The night of Jan. 3, I subscribed to the NHL package from DirecTV. Soon after, she ordered a book to educate herself more on the game of hockey.

She continues to dream. But now the dreams are different. The dreams are of a return to a place where she found hockey heaven. The dreams are of experiencing a place where she can wear her red and white and be with a great group of people. The dreams are of seeing the red light go on and hearing the horn blare.

The dreams are more real, more attainable now. After all, dreams do come true.

— Contact Jed Lockett

at jlockett@bdtonline.com