Road to the Winter Classic (Part II)

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The 2011 Winter Classic has come and gone, showcasing the best of the league in one very unique experience.

And what an experience it was.

As I’d mentioned in Part I, I was in quite a state before the game. A mix of both my fanboyism for my beloved Penguins and my more observational respect for the Capitals, the team of my home city, the entire experience was shaping up to be one of personal epic proportions.

My entire experience was not mine alone, however. I had several participants in my weekend drama, making it one of the most convoluted and awesome events I’ve ever attended.

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Persona dramatis:
Rabid Fanboy (the Penguins fan voice inside my head)
Lifelong Hockey Observer (the hockey lover voice inside my head; often at war with Rabid Fanboy)
Me (when my mouth actually opens)
Wife (the voice of reason in my life)
Islanders Fan (my leftside seatmate, from Gaithersburg, MD)
Unnamed Penguins Fans (a group of fans to our right, in front of and behind us)
Unnamed Capitals Fans (a group of fans surrounding Unnamed Penguins Fans)

We left for Pittsburgh around lunchtime on Friday, New Year’s Eve. On the way there, we took notice of the many, many cars and SUVs that we passed (and were passed by) that had various Caps decals, bumper stickers, flags, and dressed fans. On at least two occasions we were abruptly cut off at high speed on traffic-packed I-70.

RF: Figures. Caps fans.
Me: Guhhhhh….
Wife: Go figure; look, Maryland plates.

After we arrived at our relative’s place in Pittsburgh, we heard about the game’s time change, along with an updated weather report. It didn’t change much in the way of our timing for the event, though we were able to stay up for New Year’s Eve and afforded the opportunity to sleep in the next morning.

Me: Ahh, sweet! Means the NHL will get prime time coverage of the Classic, and thus more ratings…
Wife: Like there’s anything else on Saturday night…
Me: …and it’ll bode well for getting the NHL back on ESPN when this stupid Versus contract is done.
Wife: Does that mean McGuire and Milbury will get off our TV?
Me: One can only hope.

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Seriously though, the time change will most likely prove to be a great thing. After experiencing the event at night – and hearing about the NBC broadcast from our family who watched at home – it’s hard to imagine that NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman will go back to the afternoon format. (And if you’re curious about the future locations of the Classic, read Scott Burnside’s opinion on the matter. I pretty much agree with his analysis.)

Saturday was a great day to relax and gear up for the Classic. Naps were taken, mid-afternoon meals were consumed, and weather forecasts consulted. We dressed in several layers with an eye on possible drizzle later in the evening, also knowing how fast the temps could drop along the river. While it seemed excessive when we stepped out into the 59 degree early evening, we knew we’d at least be warm and somewhat dry by the time we worked our way back into downtown Pittsburgh for our pick-up. It helped that our family offered to ferry us by car, allowing us to avoid the hefty parking fees and atrocious traffic we knew was waiting for those arriving by car.

Walking along Sixth Avenue and then to the Sixth Avenue Bridge (aka the Roberto Clemente Bridge) was a nice bit of nostalgia for us. It was also amusing to see the variety of jerseys being worn from both sets of fans. The Penguins fans wore an array of jerseys from the team’s history, with the powder blue third jersey, the current black and gold, and the 90′s triangle penguin the most dominant, sporting names such as Lemieux, Crosby, Malkin, and Jagr. For the Caps, nearly every one we saw was the ‘new’ Caps red, featuring either Ovechkin or Semin.

RF: Clearly, DGB was right: according to the fans, the Caps have only been around since 2006.
LHO: Clearly, we’ve got the legacy fanbase versus the ‘new’ fanbase. Wasn’t too long ago Pens fans were just like the Caps fans today.
Me: If I see a Caps jersey with Jagr on it, I’ll buy him a beverage of his choice.
Wife: Only if he’s wearing a mullet.

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The walk to Heinz Field was surreal. We bypassed most of the tailgating area (though we could hear it) and walked along the river with many other fans of both teams. What was striking was the amiableness of everyone; there was no taunting, no smack-talk, no hockey nerd rage.

Me: Nothing like a Classic to bring out the best of the fanbase.
Wife: No one’s drinking yet.
LHO: Wonder what it’d be like if it was Philly instead of the Caps?
RF: Armageddon in the streets.

Having never been to Heinz Field before, it took a bit to circle the stadium to our proper gate of entrance. A quick pat-down and two ramps later, we were entering section 133. I was pleasantly surprised to see just how low and close we were to the actual rink sitting on the field (surrounded by fake snow, I might add) and it didn’t dawn on either of us that we were quite close as we continued down, down, down, looking for Row K. The view was tremendous; we were only slightly higher than ice level, giving us a great look at about 2/3rds of the ice surface and close enough to see the players’ faces and expressions.

RF: Whoa.
LHO: Whoa.
Me: Whoa.
Wife: Awesome!
IF: Cool, two Penguin fans. I was worried you’d be Caps fans.
UCF: *icy glares*
Me: I see what you mean.

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As the seats filled up and we munched down on the food I gathered at the nearby concession stand, it became obvious we were a small pocket of Pens fans surrounded by a larger Caps contingent. No stranger to being “island fans,” we were pleased to see that by and large, everyone – regardless of jersey color – was happily chatting and discussing the impending game.

Topics of discussion ranged from Neuvirth’s status and Varly’s start to the return of Jordan Staal and who’d be scratched to make room. I was actually happy to see some of the ‘old school’ Caps jerseys a few rows in front of us, both emblazoned with Al Iafrate’s name and number. Good-natured ribbing could be heard from a couple a few seats away; he wearing a Crosby jersey and she sporting Backstrom.

The beer started to flow around us and we settled in for the pregame.

RF: I really hope they don’t ruin the National Anthem with that stupid…
UCF: (shout ‘RED’ and ‘OH’ during the anthem)
Me: (muttering) Man, I hate that stupid tradition.
IF: You’ve no idea.

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The game unfolded slowly before us. Several times, I found myself glancing around the stadium, still in awe of the fact that I was here, near the center stage of the NHL’s most prestigious event outside the Stanley Cup Finals (and no, the All-Star Game does not count). It was awe-inspiring. And then I snapped back to reality after the crowd roared. I’d missed a Semin breakaway move and Fleury’s subsequent save.

LHO: Pay attention, genius.
RF: Is Bylsma wearing a fedora?

On the scoreboard screen during breaks in the action, the camera snapped on several fans, mostly kids in Penguins colors. One child of probably 6 or 7 held up a cardboard cutout of Bruce Boudreau’s face, replete with the ‘yelling’ expression showcased on the HBO special and ketchup splattered around his mouth.

RF: AHAHAHAHAHAHA!
LHO: AHAHAHAHAHAHA!
Me: AHAHAHAHAHAHA!
Wife: AHAHAHAHAHAHA!
IF: Genius…
UPF: AHAHAHAHAHAHA!
UCF: AHAHAHA. LET’S GO CAPS!

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The Rupp-Erskine fight that unfolded in front of us finally brought out the taunting between fans that we’re used to (both at the old Civic Arena and at the Verizon Center). UPF and UCF shouted some good-natured insults at each other as we all discussed the sheer awesomeness of the fight, which had both players throwing (and connecting) some big blows. Consensus in Section 133 is that neither of them won the fight. The period ended as the rain began to drizzle down. As the Clarks played, beer was refilled and bladders emptied. The tension ratcheted up, since nearly all the stats were close for the first period. Who’d break things open?

RF: Malkin. He’s so due.
LHO: Malkin. Or Semin. Heck, with the way they’re playing, Chimera or Fehr, even.

Then came Malkin’s swoop up the right side and BANG! The stadium went nuts.

RF: Totally called it!
LHO: Wow, check out how happy Geno is!
Me: WOOOOT! MALKIN!
Wife: That was sweet!
UPF: MVP! MVP! MVP!
UCF: (discontented grumble)
IF: Wait, what happened?

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The two subsequent goals by the Caps not only energized UCF but also apparently pushed their “taunt” buttons to “full engage.” Lots of middle fingers and f-bombs tossed around, much to many of the UPF parents nearby. Even one of the Caps moms behind me yelled for them to shut up and taunt fair. As the crowd quieted for the face-off after Knuble’s power play goal, somewhere behind us erupts a little girl’s shrill voice: “C-A-P-S! CAPS CAPS CAPS! Like that, mommy?”

RF: Okay, that’s cute.
LHO: Awesome! Training the little ones is cool.
Wife: (smile)
Me: Totally cool.
UCF: (picks up chant)
UPF: LETS GO PENS!

End of second period, more beer and bladder runs by UCF and UPF. And the announcer tells us the ‘mystery band’ about to sing is “no stranger to Steelers fans; they’re the band behind the song Renegade. Here is THE STYX!”

UPF: Did she say ‘the Styx’?
UCF: Did she just say ‘the Styx’?
Me: Wait, we get some washed-out 80s band?
Wife: I don’t think their hairstyle has changed at all.
IF: Shoot me. Shoot me now.

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The rain started up again in the third period. The hard whistle at the 10 minute mark confused a lot of people, including some of the players. Previous Classics, the change in sides occurred at the first whistle after the 10 minute mark, allowing play to remain organic. During the TV timeout, they had a trivia question for some lucky fan to answer, in order to gain his row a free copy of NHL 2011. They chose a Caps fan. And then came the question: “Who played against the Chicago Blackhawks in the 2009 Winter Classic? A. Toronto B. Detroit C. Philadelphia.”

RF: Looks like they needed to dumb down the question.
LHO: ARE YOU SERIOUS?!
Me: EVEN MAPLE LEAF FANS KNOW THAT ANSWER!
Wife: Even *I* know that answer.
IF: Please, oh please say ‘Calgary.’ I need a good laugh because I’m still sober.

As the minutes ticked down, the game got desperate, hope began to diminish for Penguins fans, and the Caps fans got enthusiastic. Our own UCF got downright obnoxious, getting into a drunken yelling match with a supposed UPF in front of me. I say ‘supposed’ since our boy here was decorated out in Steelers wear, save the lame fake replica Crosby jersey. It was not pretty – and more annoyingly, both pretty well stood for the match, blocking our view for the waning seconds.

RF: ARRRGH.
LHO: Tremendous game!
Me: Down in front, yo!
Wife: It’s 0.6 seconds. We can go, you know.
Me: Oh, right.

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We moved up and out into the packed ramps and made our way out, noting at least one instance of a Caps fan who apparently made their way into the wrong place and was being subdued and cuffed by police. Conversation around us was subdued but animated, a pleasant surprise as it came from both Caps and Pens fans. Sporadic “CAPS CAPS CAPS!” chants broke out and faded, but nothing really overwhelmed the crowd’s enthusiasm. I overheard recounts of Malkin and Fehr’s breakaway goals, Fleury’s mistake for getting caught out of the net, and Ovechkin’s spill as he tripped over the blue line on one right side rush. It was pleasant, the crowd was polite, and I was really proud of Pittsburgh as a host city at that moment.

RF: *sniff*
LHO: *sniff*
Me: That was so amazing.
Wife: Sooo glad we came!
Other UPF: (drunk) So yinz gonna lose in the first round again?
Other UCF: (not drunk) Thank you so much for hosting the game! Great result, beautiful city!
Other UPF: (drunk) Durrrrr….
Wife: *sniff* I’m proud to be a Washingtonian tonight.
Me: *sniff*

As we began our trek back to downtown to catch our ride, we smiled and nodded at many fans as they walked alongside us. It seemed that we were unified as a whole in the experience, despite the rain and chill. Even Pens fans had smiles on their faces. And then, in the distance, we heard a chant go up that swept down the riverside and over us as well. It was a chant, in that moment, that we became one with our brothers-in-hockey. Caps and Penguins fan, young and old, male and female – it was a moment of sheer bonding that we all gave ourselves to, with gusto:

“FLY-ERS SUCK!”

It was the most classic moment of the 2011 Winter Classic.

All photos by me. View the complete set.

http://sports.espn.go.com/nhl/winterclassic11/columns/story?columnist=burnside_scott&id=5980400

Having lived in the DC area for ten years, Ben still loves to wander the city with his wife, shooting lots of photos and exploring all the latest exhibits and galleries. A certified hockey fanatic, he spends some time debating the Washington Capitals club with friends – but everyone knows of his three decade love affair with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

A professional writer, gamer, photographer, and Lego enthusiast, Ben remains captivated by DC and doesn’t plan on leaving any time soon.

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8 thoughts on “Road to the Winter Classic (Part II)

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  2. Wait, you saw an ISLANDERS fan? I didn’t know there was such a thing as an Islanders Fan… :)

  3. Nice piece Ben, very creative.

    By the way, ESPN treated the Winter Classic like a so-so event. On Sunday morning, I tuned in to Sports Center Highlights and Highlight Express to see how they covered it.

    I know football is king, but the bowls they showed were not the biggie games. So, what time do you think they both finally got to it? 5 minutes after the hour? Ten?

    Try 15.

    Ridiculous.

  4. @Tiffany Well, I didn’t want to overdo the Pittsburghese here, lest I confuse the normals.

    @Chris I know, right? Hence why he got single billing in my little dialogue.

    @Jay I’m convinced ESPN is secretly mad the NHL didn’t go crawling back to renegotiate, since ESPN2 is now pretty well useless as a channel with hockey no longer on it. Still, when the NHL was on ESPN, it was a top-notch production and I still miss it when I suffer through Versus’ broadcasts.

  5. I can totally understand how both Caps and Penguins fans would unite against Philly. Especially seeing as Philly has an all time winning percentage against Pitt of over 60%, and nearly that against Washington. We owned you guys pretty good for a long time ;)

    Actually, a caps friend of mine was going to join me for a game in philly, wearing his caps paraphernalia, and we were going to make a sign, ‘Hey, at least we both hate Crosby’. One day..

    For the record Caps+Pens fans, Pit still has the all time edge over DC at 55%, but you’re gaining!

  6. What ever happens with the tv contracts, I never want to watch a game I’m interested in on NBC again. I think I saw 10 faceoffs the whole game. And I stopped counting the number of times where the puck and player traveled out of the camera picture and it took 3-4 seconds to switch to another view. Oh, and did you hear, there was some rain during the game, and it was only supposed to last a few min, but it didn’t? I learned more about rain than I did either of the two teams.

    Great game, great event (esp the 24/7 leading up to it), too bad NBC did such a horrible production job.

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