I was admittedly cranky leading up to the Winter Classic last week at Nationals Park.
I might as well have shouted “how dare they” when it seemed like all the things that make a Winter Classic were being taken away. No open practice, no true alumni game, mediocre music acts and the game wasn’t being held at RFK Stadium.
Facing off a great team and a true winner like the Chicago Blackhawks didn’t counterbalance the others for the build-up. I like the Hawks. I don’t hate them because they were Washington’s twin there after the lockout and obviously made a few steps ahead winning two Stanley Cups since then.
Once my sister and I walked out of the Navy Yard Metro stop, we could feel it would be special despite all the worrisome news of nothing much than cold weather and a big crowd. We both ran into a friend, Artie, from Hagerstown that we each played hockey with (and she had worked with him, too) at the stop. With his wife and kids, they were ready to get in and see the game behind home plate. Us? In the outfield under the scoreboard.
The Spectator Plaza area seemed busier and more cramped than the others I attended in Pittsburgh and Boston, but still jubilant. In between the ska cover band (so very 1990s DC and I love it) and fans chugging beer, a maze of lines leading to things to do snaked their way and eventually met each other. We only got to do a couple of things in the shipping container adorned Spectator Plaza but meeting Peter Bondra and Charm City Cakes’ Duff Goldman canceled everything else out. So what if I couldn’t get a chance to shoot a puck in a dryer? I was going to play pick-up the following day.
Once inside the gates of Nationals Park, everything made sense. It’s about the game. It’s, as one fan said at another Winter Classic game, it’s about the motherfucking pageantry. Not being a fan of the Bruins of Flyers, attending a hockey game in Fenway was special enough to me along with having what amounted to a hockey vacation, sneaking in a game in the TD Garden and watching the Bruins alumni game, too. The Caps-Pens game was itself reason enough to attend.
The production of this Winter Classic with its special set and great gameplay made up for everything. If advances in ice making continue, Tampa fans would go nuts at a Winter Classic or even a Stadium Series game. Here’s an idea: once the Rays finally leave St. Pete, rip the roof off Tropicana Field and play outdoors before the stadium is demolished.
Back to Washington, there wasn’t any rain to deal with in Pittsburgh or snow from a previous storm around Fenway Park. The snowless, crisp, chilly weather with bright sun is your Mid-Atlantic winter. Yeah, Maryland, DC and Virginia get their share of snow but only in bunches. Today would be the start of such bunch.
Players looked faster at warmups on the ice, fans were pumped. Who cares if Billy Idol was retreading old hits? Just go along with it. The twin F-16 jets rumbled and rocked me more than Idol did. The players skating from out behind the replica Capitol building onto the mock frozen reflecting pond would hit me in the feels knowing this moment arrived and a battle was about to rage.
When Eric Fehr, the Caps’ own F-16, streaked down the ice to put the first goal, it felt like we already won. Destiny to have the Winter Classic whisperer in the house after potting two in the 2011 Winter Classic in Pittsburgh. Who would have known then that he would come back and score in another Winter Classic for the Caps? I didn’t think the guy would be in the NHL again after his sluggish time in Winnipeg.
Ovechkin’s tally followed by two Blackhawks score created more drama and tension than I felt in Pittsburgh. I’m convinced it was the speed because of the great ice conditions. With how chippy and sluggish the 2011 game played from the rain-soaked ice, it was difficult to get a read on who would come out of these scrambles with a puck.
Come 12 seconds left in the game, Ovechkin would have his stick broken on his way to the net. Somehow, the puck would come to a halt just in time for Troy Brouwer to spin, push it to his blade for a wrister, low gloveside against Corey Crawford.
This, folks, is the “oh my God, did he just do that? Are we really going to win this thing?” moment. I never got to attend the Caps 1998 run because at age 13, I didn’t have disposable income. The “holy shit” elation was limited to my living room as that team moved on round by round to the Stanley Cup Finals only to lose to the Detroit Red Wings in four straight.
When it comes to pro hockey in Washington, this felt like it was a Stanley Cup Final win. Especially against a two-time recent champ from the Western Conference. It certainly made up for my first home experience back in DC when I snuck in a game at the Verizon Center in December.
It seemed like the Caps would choke at every chance they’d get to seize a big moment, especially at home. Winning against Pittsburgh was great in 2011, but any feeling some sort of hex would be removed didn’t last. The Caps managed to not face the Pens in the playoffs that year and made it to the second round after beating the New York Rangers. The Tampa Bay Lightning, a lower seed, had their number and swept the Caps.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the Lighting faces the Caps in the playoffs this year, especially in the second round. Maybe this is the year that things would be different (sorry Bolts fans).
All fans and teams can do is try their hardest and wait for things to unfold. Sometimes you don’t even see the shots you make until the crowd screams.
I can say the same thing when I captured the photo above of Troy Brouwer’s winner.