Weather, travel don't deter Penguins fans from attending Stadium Series game
CHICAGO — About 90 minutes prior to faceoff of the Penguins-Chicago Blackhawks Stadium Series outdoor game Saturday night, an impromptu chant broke out from about two dozen fans in the spectator plaza outside Solider Field.
“Let's go Pens!”
For many in that group, after all the fun of the game is over, they'll be thinking something distinctly different.
Let's go home.
Easier said than done, perhaps, with much of the northern half of the country bracing for another winter storm.
With up to a half-foot of snow or more forecast for the Pittsburgh area from Sunday into Monday, the estimated 15,000 Penguins fans who made the drive (or flight) from Western Pennsylvania for the franchise's third outdoor game would figure to experience trepidation embarking on the seven-hour trek by car back home.
“We've got four-wheel drive,” Anton Martz of Clarion said with a shrug.
Martz, 31, drove here with three of his high school buddies.
“I've driven through lots of snow in my life, so I'm not too worried about it,” he said.
That was a common sentiment from among the scores of fans outside Soldier Field who were wearing Penguins jerseys or other Pittsburgh paraphernalia.
Throughout the later part of the week, the forecast fluctuated, and meteorologists on Saturday scaled back the predicted snowfall in Pittsburgh. As recently as Friday, some forecasts were predicting 6 to 12 inches in Western Pennsylvania.
Travel from the area to Chicago on Thursday, Friday or even early Saturday was uneventful. The first flurries began trickling down between the skyscrapers of downtown Chicago just past 4 p.m. EST. The snowfall gradually increased as faceoff approached, becoming heavy about an hour before the 8:15 p.m. EST faceoff.
The snow, wind gusts and temperatures in the teens led to wind-chill factors hovering around 0. That did little to chill the enthusiasm Penguins fans had for the opportunity to watch firsthand their team play outdoors.
“We wouldn't miss this one,” said Alicia Overly of Greensburg.
Overly and her husband, Adam, attended both of the Penguins' previous outdoor games: Jan. 1, 2008, in Orchard Park, N.Y., and Jan, 1, 2011, at Heinz Field.
“There's nothing better than outdoor hockey,” Adam Overly said. “It's taking the sport back to its roots. That's where it's supposed to be. It's awesome.”
About the only concession the Overlys made to one of the (presumably) final salvos of an unusually harsh winter was leaving their 1-year-old son at home. They bought a ticket for him but weren't planning on using it.
If the snow wasn't preventing fans from showing up, it figured to affect the quality of hockey they were going to watch. In meeting with reporters about three hours before faceoff, both teams' coaches indicated their players would simplify their games and that carrying the puck likely was going to prove difficult.
“You're going to have snow coming down and snow on the ice. That may be an extra strain in the game,” Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said.
But, similar to Steelers games, the outcome and quality of play are almost secondary to the event. Tailgating and gathering with friends provided a jovial atmosphere — even among total strangers.
Martz and friend Tim Raybuck, both of Clarion, met the Overlys while standing along a temporary fence entering the spectator plaza, where a band played amidst several merchandise, sponsor and refreshment tents.
“They had Penguins jerseys on,” Adam Overly said. “So right away, they were good in my book.”