CHICAGO – My goal here was to ask questions. But Greg Vodnik kept offering me food.
“Here, have a grilled onion,” said Vodnik, gesturing at a plate filled with bratwursts and homemade onion rings. “You want a grilled onion?”
No, I told him, that’s OK. But thanks for the offer.
“All right,” Vodnik said with a nod. “No problem.”
For the next hour, this scene would replay itself in one form or another across the crowded parking lots in the shadow of Soldier Field. Nothing could stop the generosity of Blackhawks fans – not cold, not wind, not pellets of snow that slapped our faces like frozen sand.
Don’t get me wrong. The game was terrific and memorable, with 62,921 fans packing the stands at Soldier Field to see the Blackhawks face off against the Pittsburgh Penguins. With temperatures in the teens, the Hawks cruised to an impressive 5-1 win with two goals from Jonathan Toews and one goal apiece from Patrick Sharp, Kris Versteeg and Bryan Bickell.
If you ask me, though, the real party was in the parking lots.
Because when’s the last time Hawks fans had the opportunity
to tailgate before a game? When’s the next time they’ll get to do so?
The first vehicle to pull into the stadium’s south parking lot was a silver Ford F-250 pickup truck. It arrived at 2 p.m. but was forced to
wait until 3 p.m., when the gates to the lot opened more than four hours before the opening faceoff.
Elgin couples Dave and Jackie Vasquez and Mark and Kristin Anderson quickly exited the truck and started heating up charcoal for their feast. The spread included stuffed burgers – some with cheese and mushrooms, others with jalapenos and bacon – along with bratwursts, chili and beers that went perfectly with everything.
The group proudly planted a Blackhawks flag near the front of their truck.
“This is an event,” Mark Anderson said with a grin. “This is like a once-in-a-lifetime chance.”
Who could argue?
Not Bob or Billie McNally. The Pittsburgh couple owns season tickets to see the Penguins, and they drove to Chicago to visit their son, Randy, and to see the outdoor game.
“Randy was going to get the beer,” said Billie McNally, who wore a heavy-duty Penguins winter jacket. “And I said, ‘Oh, no. We definitely have to bring our own.’ ”
I wondered why.
McNally provided the answer, lifting up a custom case of Miller Lite with the Penguins’ logo printed on the side of every can.
“Miller Lite is not Miller Lite,” McNally said, “unless it has a Penguin on the side.”
Did you know this? Because I didn’t know this.
The McNallys were fun people – they said Blackhawks fans had treated them very well – but it seemed like time to talk to someone else. I trekked north toward the Waldron parking lot.
A group of 10 people on the top deck of the lot mingled around a table that included Italian sandwiches, salami, chicken, bratwursts, hot dogs and burgers.
“And a lot of Fireball,” Gabriella Marti added with a laugh.
Marti organized the tailgating party with her friends because, well, why not? None of them had tickets to the game, but they pitched in $10 apiece to preorder two parking passes and sent out a group email to determine who was bringing which food items.
“We have to leave once the game starts,” said Meghann Michalski, citing the lot’s rules. “Well, we can leave our cars, but we can’t be here.”
Nobody seemed to mind.
Tickets would have been nice. But tailgating was essential.
“We don’t have to sit outside for another four hours for the game,” Marti said with a shrug. “I mean, you can watch it at the bar, right?”
• Northwest Herald sports columnist Tom Musick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @tcmusick.