How the Winter Classic’s return to Wrigley Field was inspired by Fenway Park’s NHL success

Charles Cherney/Chicago Tribune/TNS

If everything goes according to plan, Chicago Blackhawks forward Nick Foligno should be able to boast a feat few athletes outside of baseball players and old-timey football mudders can claim: Playing a professional game at Fenway Park and Wrigley Field.

Make that Foligno and teammate Taylor Hall, assuming he returns from knee surgery next season.

The two played together as Boston Bruins when Fenway hosted the NHL Winter Classic on Jan. 2, 2023.

They could play together again when the Classic returns to Wrigley for the first time since Jan. 1, 2009. The league announced last week that Wrigley will host the Classic for a second time in 2025 on a date yet to be determined. It will be the third time the Hawks have hosted, including the 2019 game at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Ind.

“It’d be pretty cool,” Foligno said. “We’re excited just to have the chance to showcase our city, and especially at Wrigley. It’s such a storied ballpark and franchise. We’re excited when that day comes but we’ve got a lot going on here, so we haven’t had a chance to talk about it.

“Knowing how much fun Fenway was two years ago, I’m really looking forward to it.”

Foligno kept chatting about Wrigley when he recalled a recent moment when he took his family ice skating during the Winterland festival at Gallagher Way on the Wrigley Field grounds.

His eyes widened when it dawned on him.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, I guess I’ve already skated at Wrigley. There you go.”

Foligno spoke with the Tribune about memories of the Winter Classic, while Hawks and Chicago Cubs executives talked about how a hockey team, ballpark and league negotiated quickly to bring the NHL’s outdoor showcase back to Chicago.

1. Looking ahead with a 10-year plan.

Hawks president of business operations Jaime Faulkner said since taking the job in December 2020, the Hawks began mapping out a 10-year plan with the NHL, trying to align signature events to when star players might retire or when the Hawks might be — to put it bluntly — good again. “Connor (Bedard) has accelerated everything,” Faulkner said.

“We actually didn’t intend to get the Winter Classic this early,” she said. “We were talking to them about potentially getting it our centennial year (in 2026-27). Then we realized how much work it is — after talking to Boston — to pull off a centennial year.”

But that got the Hawks and NHL talking more about the Classic.

“It’s very complicated to get a Winter Classic,” Faulkner said. “The city has to be on board. Your venue has to be on board and the team has to be on board with all the different deals that were in place.

“So we didn’t get this done until probably a week before we announced it, to be honest,” Faulkner said. “It was up in the air.”

2. Don’t call it the “Faulkner Classic.”

Jaime’s husband is Cubs executive vice president of sales and marketing Colin Faulkner, but you could hear the cringe in his voice over the suggestion that the “Faulkner Classic” might have come together over the dinner table — perhaps after they figured out who got the last slice of pie.

“The Faulkner Classic,” he scoffed. “I don’t know if (she) or I ever refer to it as that. I’ve heard somebody in the (Cubs) office tell me that. They thought it was funny.”

Colin Faulkner might have had designs on the Classic longer than Jaime Faulkner has.

Ever since the Cubs completed 10 years of renovations at the ballpark with a rededication in August 2021, executives and city officials have been envisioning big sporting events there.

Ald. Bennett Lawson, 44th, told the Tribune in an email, “The Cubs have made investments over the years to make their campus and our ward a destination during the holiday season, and we look forward to seeing the added tourism and economic opportunity this historic event will bring to the community.

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“The Blackhawks and Cubs are both tremendous partners to our city, and I can’t wait to cheer on a Hawks victory right in the 44th Ward next year.”

“We’d always had a desire to bring it back to Wrigley Field,” said Colin Faulkner, who said the club also had Northwestern University football games in mind.

“We renovated the entire ballpark, so we have heat tracing to make sure that pipes aren’t freezing, and restrooms are working. … Last time (in 2009), we brought in temporary video boards for the game. This time, we have actual video boards and club spaces.”

This year’s Classic took place at Seattle’s T-Mobile Park. Last year’s took place at Fenway.

“Wrigley Field didn’t come up as a potential venue until they had such success going back to Fenway. And that was so well done,” Jaime Faulkner said. “The ratings were great. Now they had beautiful weather that day. Everything was fantastic for that game. And they started to ask, ‘Do we want to go back to Wrigley Field?’ So as we had discussions, it just made a lot of sense for us.”

The three parties had to iron out the details and hash out the revenue split.

“There’s a fixed quantum of dollars that are going to be spent on this game,” Colin Faulkner said. “The Blackhawks, they’re missing a home game at the United Center to bring the game here, so they need to be made whole on that. So there’s a negotiation that the Blackhawks had to have directly with the league.

“And then there’s a negotiation that we had to have with the league” to rent Wrigley, he said.

Colin Faulkner said it helped that he had connections in place to streamline the process.

“When (Jaime) and the league started talking about the game, obviously she gave me a heads-up that they wanted to have a conversation about the Winter Classic. And she connected me with folks there, fortunately.

“And interestingly, before I was at the Cubs, I worked for the Stars in Dallas for 10 years and did the 2007 NHL All-Star game in Dallas. A lot of the same people that were there for the ’07 All-Star game are the people doing the Winter Classic.”

3. Field of Dreams, Part 2.

Foligno said the small touches of history stuck with him from his Fenway experience.

“You walk into these ballparks and some of them are brand new, but this one, they have the guts of these winning teams and you can still see the outside brick of the original Fenway and in the clubhouse. … Then you come to Wrigley and have that exact same experience in a way, in this old ballpark with all this nostalgia.”

Even playing in the game in a place like Fenway took on an air of mystery.

“It was a day game, and then it turned to night,” Foligno said. “And you got this really cool feeling of (being) underneath the lights as you were as a kid, and in Fenway. I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like when you’re under the lights in that ballpark” at Wrigley.

“I was there (at Wrigley), lucky enough to watch the game in the summer — this is years back — and watch the fog roll in one night with the lights on, and I was just like, ‘This place is like out of ‘Field of Dreams.’”