How many people sit here?” 6-year-old Sarah Rosenfeld wondered aloud as she closely followed her father and older sister Ruth, 7, as they walked into the changing room at the 61,500-seat Soldier Field.
“I’m guessing 100. Maybe 103.”
The girls were among more than 50 youngsters, ages 4-9, marveling at the thrill of skating outside at the famed landmark and home of the Chicago Bears. In a city where Bears football regularly dominates the nightly news, it was hockey that took center stage on the frosty gridiron and earned the high praise of “really cool,” from these young visitors.
It was all part of Hockey Weekend Across America’s Try Hockey for Free event, which took place in cities across the country on Feb. 16. This one was particularly special: Chicago-area children were invited to skate outside at a rink erected on the 50-yard line of Soldier Field for the following day’s City Hockey Classic.
Parents and kids alike were thrilled to be able to enjoy the experience, braving temperatures that dipped below 18 degrees for a chance to skate at the home of their beloved Bears.
“My son was joking that he’s never been to a Bears game, so this is the first time he’s been here and he gets to go out on the field,” said Tony Hall of Oak Park. He had learned of the event through his adult league and brought 9-year-old Jackson and 6-year-old Olivia out to skate.
“I was tempted to bring my own skates,” he laughed.
Megan Costanza of Park Ridge was equally excited to watch her 3-year-old son Ryan on the ice.
“He thinks he’s a Blackhawk today,” she smiled. “We went to the Winter Classic at Wrigley Field, so it’s kind of cool to now be in Soldier Field with a hockey rink in it. He’s been saying he gets to skate where the football players play.”
Like Sarah Rosenfeld, Courtney Hague’s kids, Chase and Tyler, were taken by the size of the stadium.
“They are excited to be out here today. They never knew it was this big.”
Matt Rau was standing by as his niece, Rachel, 9, and nephews, Joshawn, 9, and Diante, 7, enjoyed gliding around the ice while two younger nieces huddled under a blanket nearby.
“We like the Blackhawks!” the girls shouted from beneath their cozy makeshift tent.
“I was looking at the different places [with Try Hockey for Free clinics] to take the kids today and when I saw Soldier Field of course we came here,” Rau said. “They’ve skated before but haven’t actually played hockey. It’s very cool [to be down here.] It’s a different perspective than you get in the stands.”
Rau’s nieces and nephews are just a few of the children who got to play in an actual hockey scrimmage for the first time thanks to the Try Hockey for Free event. Though he likes football best, Joshawn said hockey is now pretty cool too, as he came off the ice. The scrimmage was his favorite part.
That’s just the kind of thing Annie Camins, Chicago Blackhawks director of Youth Hockey, was hoping to hear. She and several members of the NHL organization were on the ice with local coaches working with the young skaters.
“We always support USA Hockey and are happy to be out here today getting more kids involved,” Camins said. “We want to help increase participation and hopefully grow the game.”
The array of Blackhawks and Chicago Wolves jerseys on the young participants signaled the health of the youth hockey programs in the Chicago area, and the parents echoed that the past few years have been good for the sport, buoyed by the Blackhawks’ success on the ice and programs like this one.
“We go to lots of Wolves games and the kids are big Blackhawks fans. I definitely see a lot more people getting involved [in hockey] at the rinks,” Hall said.
“With youth hockey, the more you promote it, the more kids get involved. Events like this make it grow. It’s good to see,” Constanza added. “We’re a hockey family so Ryan is destined to play, but it’s good to see all these other kids getting involved in it.”
There will be no difficulty promoting the success of this event to other local children – the participants couldn’t wait to get to school on Monday to tell their friends they got to play hockey at Solider Field.
“I’ll be like, ‘Guys, I played at Soldier Field.’ They’ll probably be like ‘woah, cool!’ ” said Brandon Bak, 9, of Plainfield. “[My friends will] probably be surprised. I don’t think they even know that they have hockey at Soldier Field.”
“I liked that it was pretty when I looked up and saw the sky,” added Sarah Rosenfeld. “In my class, we write about what we did on the weekend, and I’m definitely going to write about this!”
Elizabeth Casey is based out of Chicago and is the former director of media relations for the Chicago Wolves.