SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Even on a cold, gray day where it rained from sunrise to sundown and beyond, there was an aura here reminding you just what makes this place so hallowed — perhaps reverent is a better word —in the sports universe.
It’s the Golden Dome. It’s Touchdown Jesus standing guard behind one of the end zones. It’s the seven Heisman Trophy winners and 11 national championships won. It’s where Knute Rockne became coaching royalty, where the players were told to Win One For the Gipper, and where the ever-persistent Rudy finally got a chance to play.
It’s the hallowed ground known as Notre Dame Stadium, home of the Fighting Irish football team, where since 1930 millions have fans have made the pilgrimage to northeastern Indiana to watch some of college football’s greatest ever players showcase their wares.
But the lush green turf here has been replaced temporarily. In its place, 3,000 gallons of coolant and 10,000 gallons of water have been brought in to create an outdoor hockey arena. And a magnificent one at that.
It’s where the Boston Bruins will meet the Chicago Blackhawks in the 11th annual Winter Classic, a showcase put on by the National Hockey League to bring the sport back outdoors.
“It’s a very unique experience to be part of something like this,” said Bruins high scoring left winger Brad Marchand, who missed Boston’s last game due to illness but is expected to play Tuesday. “It’s a fun thing to be part of … and we’ll enjoy it.”
This marks the third time that the Bruins have taken part in the Winter Classic; their previous two contests were both held in the Bay State. They defeated the Philadelphia Flyers in overtime, 2-1, at Fenway Park on New Year’s Day 2010; six years later they again went outdoors, this time at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, and bowed to their arch rivals, the Montreal Canadiens, 5-1.
Assistant captain Patrice Bergeron, the longest-tenured Bruin, played in each of the team’s two previous Winter Classics and has an idea of what to expect when the puck drops at Notre Dame Stadium Tuesday.
“It’s very special. This stadium is huge and (its history) goes way back,” said the first line pivot. “It’s fun to be here and try to soak everything in. But we know what happened last time (losing to the Canadiens), and we have a job to do.
“That being said, it’s a great event we’re looking forward to and we want to enjoy it.”
The Blackhawks have been the league’s poster children for outdoor games; this will mark their sixth time playing outdoors in 11 years, including three Winter Classics and two other ‘Stadium Series’ games put on by the NHL. They’ve skated in venerable venues such as Wrigley Field and Soldier Field, both in Chicago, as well as Busch Stadium in St. Louis.
Diehard Black-and-Gold fans made the trek here from Boston, flying into to Chicago or Indianapolis or South Bend decked out in newly purchased Winter Classic jerseys, sweatshirts and toques. While they’re sure to be outnumbered by Blackhawks fans, as Chicago is only about 90 minutes away, the players certainly appreciate who’ve made the committment to cheer the Bruins on.
“We’re very thankful for their support,” said captain Zdeno Chara. “It means a lot to us. We know it’s not easy to get out here, to get the tickets, flights and accommodations, but we really appreciate it. It’s who we play for; we want to make them happy.”
Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy called it “an honor” to be coaching in this game, at this stadium, against this opponent. His reasoning wasn’t just coach-speak, either.
“(My) team growing up was the Bruins; the team that drafted me was the Blackhawks,” said Cassidy, who played all 36 of his NHL contests with Chicago during the 1980s. “They also sent me down to the minors about 12 times, but I don’t hold that against them; I still have a lot of appreciation for their crest. I coached a couple of those kids over there when they were rookies, (Blackhawk defensemen Brent) Seabrook and (Duncan) Keith. If I could pick a team to play against for the rivalry, it’d be Montreal. And Chicago, for that reason that I have personal roots over there.
“It’s an unbelievable piece of property here,” continued Cassidy, “and the first non-football (sporting) event to play here, so that’s a great honor. We’ve got a great sport, a great opponent … and hopefully great weather and a great game.”