CHICAGO - When the NHL's love affair with outdoor games began six years ago, a 15-year-old named Brandon Saad sat in the crowd with his father at the inaugural Winter Classic at Buffalo's Ralph Wilson Stadium.
He'll play a slightly more prominent role in Saturday's outdoor game.
The 21-year-old Saad has participated in 109 games for the Chicago Blackhawks and has skated with the Stanley Cup. On Saturday, the former Pine-Richland star will finally play against his hometown team — he's faced every other NHL team — and he will do it at Soldier Field before a national audience.
“It's going to be a special night,” Saad said. “I am really looking forward to it.”
He isn't the only one.
Saad's father, George, said approximately 40 friends and family members will travel to Chicago to see Brandon play against the team he rooted for as a child.
“Some are flying and some are driving, but we're all going to make sure we're there for this game,” George Saad said. “Every child has dreams, but not every child is able to make his dreams come true at such a young age the way Brandon has. It's a special night for him, and we're not going to miss it.”
Saad is among the most skilled players from Western Pennsylvania to reach the NHL. Once considered a likely top-five pick, a groin injury during his 2010-11 Ontario Hockey League season slowed him down and led to his slipping into the second round.
Neither the Blackhawks nor Saad are complaining.
He has 28 career goals, finished third in Calder Trophy voting for NHL's rookie of the year last season and played a key role in the Blackhawks' Stanley Cup run.
“The more I've played in Chicago, the more comfortable I've gotten,” Saad said. “Winning the Stanley Cup helps, of course. But I just feel more confident all the time.”
He shouldn't feel completely out of sorts playing outdoors.
Not only has Saad experienced an NHL outdoor game in person, but he's skated outdoors on many occasions.
Saad became friends with Stephen Johns a decade ago while playing for the Pittsburgh Hornets. Johns, the Blackhawks' second-round pick in 2010 and a senior at Notre Dame, often skated at his uncle's outdoor pond in Wampum with Saad.
“I remember skating there,” Saad said. “It was a fun time. Hopefully, it will get me ready a little bit for the outdoor game.”
Saad excelled most of his rookie season while playing on a line with stars Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa. Perhaps even more valuable this season, Saad has 18 goals despite playing on the third line, away from stars like Toews, Hossa, Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp.
The secondary scoring provided by Saad has helped the Blackhawks emerge as one of the favorites to again win the Stanley Cup.
“It's been great,” Saad said. “You couldn't ask for a better team to play on.”
Playing against the team he grew up watching won't be so bad, either.
Saad's father can't wait.
“I still remember the fun we had together watching that game in Buffalo,” George Saad said, recalling Sidney Crosby's game-winning shootout goal.
“Now, we get to see Brandon play in front of all these people. It's a dream come true for him and for us. We're all so proud of him.”
(Josh Yohe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @JoshYohe_Trib.)