NOTRE DAME, Ind. — For as familiar as the scene at Notre Dame Stadium was on the opening day of 2019, there was no mistaking the novelty of the occasion as the puck dropped on the Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic between the Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins.
Tailgaters still peppered the parking lots pregame — though not in the numbers of the more at-home Irish faithful — but Blackhawks and Bruins flags replaced monograms and leprechaun banners. Hockey sweaters supplanted football jerseys, but the energy mimicked that felt on a typical fall Saturday.
Even the capacity crowd — the announced attendance of 76,126 was the second-largest crowd in NHL history — kept in line with the venue’s streak of 268 consecutive football sellouts.
These bricks are used to this. Similar scenery, different game.
“Driving in, I couldn’t tell the difference,” said Notre Dame vice president and James E. Rohr Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick. “The extended parking lots, the tailgating, and when I came in the stadium it was much the same feel. It feels like a football Saturday at Notre Dame, and that’s what we wanted, for the great elements of a football Saturday at Notre Dame to be carried over to this great NHL tradition.”
At every turn were nods to the tradition that so marks the place. The Blackhawks — Tuesday’s home team — entered their locker room as the Irish would. But instead of Ian Book and Te’von Coney, Miles Boykin and Drue Tranquill, there were Chicago stars Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Patrick Kane making the walk through Library Quad. Instead of the Band of the Fighting Irish, the Chicago Police Department Pipes and Drums band escorted the Hawks through the Knute Rockne gate.
The signage — despite the advertisements that wouldn’t normally be found inside The House Rockne Built — blended seamlessly with the Art Deco theming of the concourse. Shamrocks that showcased Chicago and Boston legends Ray Bourque, Johnny Bucyk, Tony Esposito, Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita, Bobby Orr, Denis Savard and Eddie Shore flanked the rink, while each team had their own “Play Like a Champion Today” sign (plastered to the face of a larger-than-life puck) to tap as they emerged from the tunnel.
Public address announcer Gene Honda made introductions as the South Bend Symphony Orchestra played the Notre Dame Victory March, followed by the theme from the “Rudy” soundtrack. Prior to taking the ice, the teams marched out of the stadium to meet a handful of former Irish football standouts, including 1987 Heisman Trophy winner Tim Brown, all-time leading rusher Autry Denson and Raghib “Rocket” Ismail.
All the pageantry? Precisely the point.
“It was our intention from the day we announced the game to bring the traditions of Notre Dame into our game presentation,” NHL Chief Content Officer Steve Mayer told NHL.com. “Under the backdrop of one of the most legendary stadiums in the country, we’re ready to entertain what will be the second-largest crowd in the history of the NHL.”
That they did. As puck drop loomed, it became clear that Chicago’s own traditions would take over. Blackhawks gear gave Notre Dame Stadium a predominantly red hue — and for once such a takeover was welcome.
When legendary anthem singer Jim Cornelison belted out “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the crowd stood and cheered throughout, just as they would on any other night at the United Center. At Brendan Perlini’s first-period goal to give Chicago an early lead, they jumped to the chorus of “Chelsea Dagger” by the Fratellis, a now-ubiquitous part of the Blackhawks’ fan experience.
Then there were the elements unique to the event, signaling its importance. Fans were treated to a pre-game performance by The Jacks, while Grammy Award-winning band Weezer delighted with “Say It Ain’t So” and a cover of Toto’s “Africa” at the first intermission. Judah & the Lion provided the entertainment at the second break.
“Notre Dame has been an incredible host,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said. “The stadium is great, the weather (at 35 degrees and overcast) is perfect and we’re having a good day. What more could you ask for?
“It’s been sensational. … It’s been a terrific, terrific event. The atmosphere has been phenomenal, the fans are into it; the entertainment during intermission, particularly Weezer, was fun; and we didn’t have a sun-glare delay today, so thanks to Notre Dame for providing the divine intervention of cloud cover.”
In the end, it was Boston that returned through the tunnel with a 4-2 victory thanks to a pair of third-period goals, both the game-winner and last-minute empty-netter by Brad Marchand. But a well-skated game by both teams kept the outcome in doubt until the final horn, giving fans a thrilling contest to go along with all the rest of the pomp and circumstance.
Indeed, it was exactly the kind of event fans have been filling Notre Dame Stadium to see since 1930.
And if the success of this installment of the Winter Classic was any indication, it’s exactly the kind of event fans will keep filling it for in many years to come.