Soldier Field transforms into ice rink Friday

Soldier Field officially becomes home to an ice rink for the first time in its history when the OfficeMax Hockey City Classic Winter Festival opens on Friday night.

The festival is highlighted by a college hockey doubleheader between four top-20 ranked teams on Feb. 17, but the ice will be used in a variety of ways over the next two-plus weeks.

"I think our theory behind it was that we're going to be spending so much time and money for this hockey rink, and it'd be a shame to just have it for an afternoon of college games," Intersport sports properties vice president Drew Russell said on Friday. "The planning for this event started two years ago. We thought what else can we do? What else can we do to give back to the community?"

The festival will begin with a "Light the Lamp" ceremony at 5:30 p.m. on Friday. Former Blackhawks greats Bobby Hull and Tony Esposito will lead a group of people who will knock hockey pucks into a net to signify the beginning of the festival.

Hull and Esposito will be joined by other Blackhawks alumni for Skate with the Greats from 7-9:30 p.m. on Friday. Other former Blackhawks players expected to be in attendance are Stan Mikita, Cliff Koroll, Eric Daze, Phil Russell, Brian Noonan, Grant Mulvey, Reggie Kerr, Dave Mackey and Peter Marsh. Net proceeds from the event will go to the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Chicagoland and Northwest Indiana.

The first games on the rink will be played in a high school tripleheader on Feb. 8. Latin will play St. Ignatius at 3 p.m., Evanston vs. Lincoln-Way at 5 p.m. and St. Viator vs. Benet at 7 p.m. On Feb. 9, four more high school games will be played with Oak Park vs. Libertyville/Vernon Hills at noon, Mount Carmel vs. Glenbrook South at 2 p.m., St. Rita vs. Fenwick at 5 p.m. and New Trier Green vs. Loyola Gold at 7 p.m. The Chicago Fire Department will also play a game between North Side and South Side at 9 p.m. on Feb. 9.

The Hockey City Classic will be on Feb. 17 with No. 4 Miami (Ohio) going up against No. 9 Notre Dame at noon and No. 1 Minnesota facing No. 19 Wisconsin at 3:30 p.m. According to Russell, about 45,000 tickets have already been sold for the game.

Russell is hopeful this year will be just the start of hockey being held at Soldier Field.

"We don't view this particular event as a one-time opportunity," Russell said. "We can bring other teams like Michigan, Michigan State or Western Michigan or North Dakota, who travel well. It could certainly pave the way to what a great venue Soldier Field would be for the Winter Classic in the NHL."

The festival will also includes two free public skates (Saturday and Feb. 18), a youth hockey clinic with former Blackhawks player and coach Denis Savard (Wednesday), an open skate for alumni chapters of the four colleges (Feb. 15) and a USA hockey youth clinic (Feb. 16).

Tickets and more information on the festival and its games can be found at hockeycityclassic.com.