Checking in with Mr. Mikita ... and surviving my Wrigley skate

December, 30, 2008
CHICAGO -- It wasn't quite Claude Lemieux after five years away from the game, but skating for the first time in 15 months was a comeback story of my own Tuesday.

Wonky knee aside, it was a thrill to hit the ice at Wrigley Field. Sure, I got a few looks for wearing a Finnish national jersey (no reason whatsoever for that, by the way), but all in all, it was a great experience.

The NHL wouldn't allow us to hold hockey sticks or shoot pucks, understandably, but just taking a whirl around the newly built ice surface was something else. The sun was peering over home plate and the conditions were ideal. The league can only hope for similar conditions Thursday for the Winter Classic (so far, the forecast sounds pretty good).

The sun, however, could prove to be an issue. You really blinked when you made the turn at the third-base end and the sun blinded you somewhat. Some players wore eye black last season in Buffalo, and we suspect much of the same again Thursday. Tinted visors, perhaps?

The ice was fairly good. The corners got a little choppy by the end of our one-hour skate, but NHL ice guru Dan Craig still has two more days to work on it. Everyone connected to the event believes the ice preparations are ahead of schedule compared to last season in Buffalo. "It's night and day," said NHL COO John Collins.

That only makes sense since Craig and his staff have had two weeks (instead of one in Buffalo) to set up the ice. Add the fact the NHL bought a brand-new refrigeration system and you've got a much better setup.

You become pretty jaded in this business from covering so many sporting events, but I have to tell you puckheads -- walking into Wrigley Field and seeing the rink for the first time was absolutely breathtaking. Think "Field of Dreams" with ice.

Checking in with Mr. Mikita
Blackhawks legend Stan Mikita popped in for a look-see Tuesday. We asked him when was the last time he could remember playing on an outdoor rink.

"Probably when I was 15 years old back in Saint Catharines [Ontario, Canada]," said the Hockey Hall of Famer.

Mikita, one of the game's greatest players, was born in Slovakia, but moved to Canada at age 8. He also remembers going to the outskirts of town in Saint Catharines and skating on creeks. "We'd have to shovel for about two hours before we could skate," he said.

The Blackhawks have the longest Cup drought, last raising Lord Stanley's prize in 1961. Mikita was a central figure on that team, his third season in the NHL. His face lit up Tuesday when we asked him about this season's edition of the Blackhawks.

"Unbelievable," Mikita said. "I don't want to jinx them, but I think they're playing some of the best hockey I've ever seen. It reminds me of when we won the Cup in '61, and I'm not saying this year's team will definitely win it, but we weren't the best team in the league that year. We got it together at the right time."

The Hawks upset the favored Montreal Canadiens in the first round in 1961.

"That was a huge, huge upset," Mikita said. "Then, we beat Detroit in the Cup final."

Mikita would be thrilled to see a rocking United Center hoist another banner.

Pierre LeBrun

ESPN Senior Writer


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