“Hey, you interested in tickets to the Winter Classic?”
It was a question I never actually thought I’d hear. Sure, the answer was a no-brainer – of course my wife and I wanted to go to this year’s outdoor matchup between our favored Penguins and our hometown Capitals. Need more be said?
Since that simple back-and-forth flurry of emails with my friend back in August, I’ve been on pins and needles in anticipation for the game coming up this Saturday at Heinz Field in our old stomping grounds of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Long-time readers here obviously know of my acute love of hockey in general and the Penguins in particular. Through the last few years, I’ve developed a grudgingly healthy respect of the Washington Capitals as well and it hasn’t hurt being able to cover the team for this site over the last year, either. Attending the 2011 Winter Classic, however, goes beyond a simple hockey game or even the intense rivalry between the two teams. It’s a chance to enjoy hockey in its nearly purest form – outside on ice – and the fact it includes the two teams of my adult sports fan life is simply a bonus.
Back when the initial Winter Classic (WC) was announced in 2008 between the Penguins and the Buffalo Sabres in upstate New York, I had figured it was another grand hockey event I’d never get a chance to see in person. And with the Penguins in the first WC, surely it would be a while before I’d ever see them in the Classic again, much less have the chance to attend. Despite some of my fellow sportswriters’ optimism, I’m fairly sure we’ll not see the WC here in the District, either. So I was content to watch the game every year with our normal grouping of hockey friends and enjoy the league’s spectacle.
When rumors started swirling in the spring that Pittsburgh and Washington was being considered, I was cautiously optimistic. After all, there were not many other cold city NHL markets that had outdoor arenas to host such an event in the capacity the NHL would want. And we could easily argue among NHL enthusiasts how ‘unfair’ it is the Penguins get a second shot at the WC and so on. The bottom line is, however, the NHL’s need for continued publicity. As it stands, both the Caps and the Pens – and the dynamic personalities of their captains – are eyeball attractors and therefore, a gold mine that the league would be foolish to bypass. No matter how cynical fans of both teams are regarding their opposite rivals, it remains that both the Penguins and the Capitals, Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin, are compelling enough to generate excitement in the NHL. Being only five years removed from a devastating strike season and games shown on second-tier sports channels, the NHL needs every eyeball it can get.
I’ll be honest here for a moment: All of that I just said? To me, it’s irrelevant. What matters most is the fact that I am actually going to be at Heinz Field watching two great hockey teams with two of the greatest players in the league play outdoors.
I’ve been following the coverage of the WC with anticipation. I suppose that has a lot to do with the fact that I’ll actually be there; most likely, the information deluge is helping me to really enjoy the moment when it all unfolds. And certainly the whole 24/7 series by HBO has helped; I’ve only watched the first episode and I’m already emotionally invested in the game beyond rooting for the Penguins. Even though I tend to follow both teams pretty closely, the last few weeks I’ve felt like I’ve delved even deeper into each contest played, looking to see what possibly storylines would be brought to the fore in the series – and thus, to the public.
In covering the December 23rd contest, billed as a “prelude” to the WC by many, the enormity of the game ahead really began to sink in. From the pregame warm-ups that saw both teams debut their team toques to the final shot of the seven-round shootout, I could feel the excitement within building. The noise in the Verizon Center felt like it resonated through me. It was as if everything about the contest was in vivid detail and played out to storybook perfection in a tightly-played hockey game that saw the best of both teams emerge.
And if that was the best, what awaits us on January 1st?
Christmas conversation in our home revolved largely around the coming contest. We had family from Pittsburgh as our guests this year and the air was thick with anticipation from these normally casual observers of Penguins hockey. Interestingly, I found myself actually defending the Capitals on occasion through the weekend, quite possibly because I refuse to see this year’s Classic as anything but the close, talented contest it should be. I think in the back of my mind I want to see the Penguins blow out the visitors, but only from a purely fanboy position – but it’s a position I cannot justify with my expectation of this game.
Not even the revolving discussions that are ongoing this week regarding the weather forecast seem to damper the building enthusiasm within. There simply isn’t anything I can foresee that would ruin this game for me (yes, not even a Caps “blowout”), because I refuse to taint my deepest hockey desire with anything less than what it is: a contest between respected combatants with nothing on the line except team pride.
The Penguins have been the sole occupiers of my fandom for over twenty-five years of my life; nothing can replace that. What I’ve found interesting, however, is that the Capitals – in their present form, at least – are also beginning to squeeze into some of that space as well. I see in both teams the capacity for a Stanley Cup, be it another added to the total, or a completely new experience. Both teams have similar parallels in their history, both present compelling storylines from individuals to the organizational level. It is, without question, a great time for us to be hockey fans and it is something that we do not take for granted.
In this game, I see a confluence of sorts. I recognize the uniqueness of my fandom these days, rooting from a base level for the team of my youth while reporting and discussing the team of my current home. A rivalry is waged within my own person, driving me between unabashed “homerism” and restrained objectivity. All of this collides on the eve of a singular event of importance in my hockey life. These two teams will never meet in the Stanley Cup finals; what better place than the spectacle of a Winter Classic? And so, the streams of my hockey-ness converge, creating waters that should seem restless, but in fact are calm with expectation.
I realize that win or lose, neither team will walk away from this game in disappointment beyond the usual “eh, let’s get to the next game” mentality these hockey players typically hold. And it’s an attitude that my wife and I will adopt as well, looking ultimately at the end not at who won or lost, but the complete experience of a hockey event that encompasses our past, present, and future enjoyment of the game.
…to be continued…
[Coming up: WC recap on Sunday, 1/2; a personal recap of the WC on Monday, 1/3, and a mid-season Caps report card on Friday, 1/6.]