Don't get it twisted: winter in Chicago will break your spirit every single year. It will last forever, ruin everything and make you think a rare day in the high-30s feels downright tropical. But even if you've lived in Chicago your whole life, there is nothing that will prepare you for this particular winter.
This 2013-14 winter, the third coldest and third snowiest in city history, is a frozen hellscape so punishing and so unrelenting that it will throw you through the stages of grief every damn week. You will continually end up at depression and acceptance, because there are no other options. This winter doesn't accept bargaining because this winter doesn't give a shit.
It's a lesson that's important to remember. If you thought the calendar turning to March would slow down this winter, you don't know this winter very well. This winter doesn't care if the air hurts your face, and it certainly doesn't care if the Blackhawks and Penguins are scheduled to play an outdoor hockey game at Soldier Field.
Winter was happening on Saturday night in Chicago, not breaking even a little bit for the first-ever meeting between Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews. The Blackhawks and Penguins may have entered as two of the best and most talented teams in the NHL, but winter was not about to let this night have any sort of normalcy. Winter was going to pound the area with snow from the moment you arrived to the moment you left. Winter was going to cut through Chicago's lakefront with negative-eight degree winds. Winter was going to make you seriously consider if you would ever be able to regain feeling your toes.
Saturday was like most days during this particular Chicago winter, in that being outside for more than 10 minutes made you wonder why you even live here. But if there is one thing people in Chicago will suffer for, it's Blackhawks hockey. 'Hawks fans know suffering, and winter barely even feels like a threat compared to Bill Wirtz. Winter did not stop over 62,000 people from drinking and yelling and celebrating the two-time Stanley Cup champions at the house that Ditka and Walter and Halas built.
If this particular winter has ever felt even slightly redeemable, this was the night.
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Here is what I wore to Soldier Field on Saturday: two hats, two zip-up sweatshirts over a hoodless sweatshirt over a long-sleeved shirt, two pairs of gloves with hand-warmers in my pockets, three pairs of socks and boots that are supposed to be warm. I realized this wouldn't be enough after waiting 10 minutes outside my apartment to catch a cab.
This winter has created a lot of feelings, but one that may get underplayed is the undeniable sense of community it has built. We're all in this together. You couldn't escape it walking into Soldier Field Saturday night as the wind hit your face and the snow covered your clothes and your boots had just barely enough traction to keep you upright. It did not stop Chicago's enthusiasm for their Blackhawks, though. It only helped multiply it.
There was a "Detroit sucks" chant, because there's always a "Detroit sucks" chant. There were red jerseys everywhere you looked, because if that Indian head sweater fits over a pair of shoulder pads, it certainly fits over your winter jacket. There was also something less tangible but completely inescapable in the air, and that was the sensation of buzz. Soldier Field was alive Saturday night the way few venues ever are.
You can credit the Blackhawks and the weather equally for that. When I finally made my way up the top level of the stadium, this was the view:
The guys behind me were from Pittsburgh. This was their first time in Chicago.
"Holy shit. Oh my God. This is insane. This is insane."
That was all I could hear the first five minutes in the stands. It was a mix of mild panic, nervous energy, wholesale commodity and subtle alcoholism. You yelled, because everyone else was yelling. You drank, because it was the only way to fool yourself into thinking you'd warm up. And when the national anthem finally came, you screamed longer and harder than you ever thought possible. There was nothing else to do. Sometimes the moment is just that overpowering.
There's something about fireworks in a blizzard that makes for a nice way to punctuate the national anthem.
When it was over, the Blackhawks and Penguins took the ice to raucous round of applause. I couldn't feel my toes.
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Bundle up, sure, but there are some aspects of a blizzard you simply can't account for. Was that foam on top of your beer, or snow?
It was the eternal question on Saturday night, but sometimes these things are better left unanswered. If nothing else, you learned that snow beer is very similar to non-snow beer, in that it will only make you stronger.
There were less important questions too; the ones that relate to hockey. For one: how do you stake a competitive game when the ice is covered in a steady downpour of snow? The answer is the four-man manual Zamboni, which looks appropriately ridiculous in action, just like everything else:
Here's the thing: you can't really play hockey in a snowstorm. There was no stick control, no cross-ice passes with any semblance of zip, no hope of being able to fire the puck around the boards on a dump and chase. All of this made the game move a snail's pace. Something like 10 minutes of real time passed while the clock moved from 13 minutes to 11 minutes in the first period. Even when it was scoreless, you could feel a good percentage of the crowd mostly rooting for the clock.
The hockey might have seemed secondary to the scene, but it wasn't exactly difficult to remember why we were all here. Patrick Sharp lit the lamp midway through the first and "Chelsea Dagger" blared out of the stadium PA. Get used to it, because the Blackhawks score quite often and also because this city will probably be playing that song for the next 200 years. If The Fratellis aren't getting some of that Wirtz money, they have a bigger beef than Bobby Hull when he jumped to the Jets in 1972.
You could have tried to go to the bathroom or the concession stand during the intermission, but it would not have been easy. The concourses at Soldier Field were shoulder-to-shoulder with drunks. There were even some smoking cigarettes despite that being thoroughly not allowed. It was a good bit of rule breaking, if only because no one could tell your breath from smoke in the first place.
The Plain White T's played during the first intermission, but not the one song you definitely know but surely wish you could forget. The song they did play was (seriously) tied together by the following chorus: "hate is a strong word / but I really, really, really don't like you".
Whether that was a subtle commentary on winter or the perfect approximation of how just about everyone felt about that performance didn't really matter. It was fitting, is all.
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There were more goals, because this is the Blackhawks and there are always more goals. Jonathan Toews started the second period with a beautiful breakaway that faked Marc-Andre Fleury into a different timezone. The newly returned Kris Versteeg buried a gorgeous pass from Patrick Kane five minutes later to make it 3-0. In these conditions, that might as well have been a 10 goal lead.
More Stadium Series
More Stadium Series
At that point, it was about adaptation and survival for everyone involved. Marian Hossa was taken out of the game with an upper body injury; the bathrooms were slammed with people just trying to keep warm. By the time the third period started, I wasn't all that confident my toes were still attached to my body. I found a bathroom to seek warmth and quickly realized everyone else had the same idea: dudes were just hanging out, hiding from the elements, talking about legitimate fears of frostbite. This is a move that should drain the honor out of any worthy man, but the company made it seem at least somewhat acceptable. Even Ditka gets cold, you'd have to think.
By the time the Blackhawks were adding goals No. 4 and No. 5 on the evening, Soldier Field had lost seemingly half of its patrons. Getting out of this stadium was going to be a disaster as is; might as well get a head start on everyone else.
The snow continued to fall as the final horn sounded and a stadium's worth of people flooded Chicago's streets in the most competitive game of cab chasing you could possibly imagine. The 'Hawks had won and so had winter. Get used to it, because it's starting to feel like neither side ever loses.