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Caps in the Classic

by Mike Vogel / Washington Capitals
New Year’s Day 2011 will be a memorable occasion for the Washington Capitals and their fans. The league’s fourth annual Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic will pit the Capitals against the Pittsburgh Penguins at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, home of the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers.

Given the excitement and thrills provided by most of the last 15 games (including a seven-game series in the 2009 Stanley Cup playoffs) played between the Caps and the Pens, and the rivalry that has existed between Washington’s Alex Ovechkin and Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby since both players came into the league as rookies in 2005-06, the Washington-Pittsburgh Winter Classic pairing is not at all surprising.

“I think I am used to that a little bit playing in Philadelphia,” says Caps’ right wing Mike Knuble in reference to the heated Capitals-Penguins rivalry. “We had great games with Pittsburgh, too. They’re fun games and they’re always a team you’re excited to play against. Now this one will be in their backyard up in Pittsburgh. It’s fun. It will be an easy game to get ready for. It doesn’t matter the opponent on that day because that’s a fun one to play. The trick will be not to be too distracted and realize there is still a game to play.”

This will be Pittsburgh’s second appearance in a Winter Classic. They played Buffalo at Rich Stadium on New Year’s Day 2008.

For the Caps and their fans, the best news is that Washington’s entire group of full season ticket holders will be able to purchase tickets to the event. Expect a mass pilgrimage of Caps fans driving west to Pittsburgh in the days and hours leading up to the New Year’s Day matinee tilt.

Also, the league has given the Capitals its assurance that the Washington area will play host to an outdoor game at some point in the next several years.

“I think it is sort of an affirmation that we are one of the elite teams in the NHL now,” says Capitals president Dick Patrick. “According to the commissioner, they pick the participants in these games based on fan appeal, what the people want to see and what the networks want to see, so we’re very flattered to be picked for this one. Also, we wouldn’t be flattered or have accepted if we didn’t think it was great for our fans as well. As part of this whole process we’ve been assured that all of our full season-ticket holders will have the ability to buy tickets to the event. We hope they’re all up there cheering for the Caps, and we expect to have a similar event, a Winter Classic here in Washington within the next couple of years.”

Each of the previous Winter Classics has produced a close game and no disastrous weather conditions.

“I think every year it’s gotten better, and it’s just a great production by the NHL,” says Knuble. “It’s just a great experience. The fans have loved it, and it’s really been a big hit. They’ve really solidified the date of New Year’s Day, and it’s becoming a great tradition in our league. Every year it gets a little bit better. The venues tend to be really great places to be and fun places to play. [There is] no roof over your head, so I guess you don’t mind some flurries and some snow. I guess the worst thing would be rain. I don’t think any game yet has had any weather issues too bad. Hopefully, this isn’t the first one.”

In somewhat of an ironic twist, Patrick’s grandfather and great-uncle and their father built the first artificial indoor ice rinks in North America almost a century ago. Those first barns were part of the league the Patrick family founded out west in those days, the Pacific Coast League.

“I’ve heard just parts of it,” says Patrick, when queried about his family’s history. “But the way I heard it was the first artificial indoor rink. I guess they had some indoor rinks in these really cold weather places where there was no heat and they would open the doors and the vents and the ice would just be on a slab. Actually, I played on a rink like that in Connecticut when I was younger.

“My grandfather and his brother and their father built I’m told the first two artificial ice rinks in British Columbia, one in Vancouver and one in Victoria. Once the technology got where you could do that, it obviously changed where the game could go. Fast-forward to today, and not only is it all over the world but in this country it is all over warm weather places. You’ve got Stanley Cups won by teams in Dallas, and you don’t find too many frozen ponds down there.”

Patrick has little doubt what his ancestors would think of the modern Winter Classic.

“I think they’d love it,” he says without hesitation. “I think that anything that grows hockey, grows the interest in the sport among people in this country, that was always first and foremost in their thoughts. I think this game is a huge event. It’s popular for hockey fans and non-hockey fans alike. People are watching on TV, and we have a large share of the ownership of New Year’s Day now with NHL hockey. I think that’s great for the league and great for the sport.”

Besides creating a good skating surface and hoping for ideal weather conditions, there are some issues unique to playing the game outdoors.

“Playing on places that are pavilion-type [places] or have a lot of windows, there is obviously a glare,” offers Knuble. “Sunshine, if it’s a sunny day, definitely the sun can be a huge factor where it is if it’s glaring off the ice or shining off things. And I think the wind if there is a breeze whipping through the stadium. I think we’re all used to feeling some sort of air on your face, but probably when you’re carrying the puck and your eyes are watering, that might be a little bit interesting to deal with.”

One of the more endearing features of previous Winter Classics has been the participants donning old, “throwback” jerseys for just the one game. The players seem to enjoy sporting different sweaters, while fans have also taken a liking to the “new” old look.

Whether or not that look will include a nod to the white pants worn briefly and infamously during the franchise’s early history remains to be seen.

“I think it’s very cool for them, I think it’s cool for everyone,” says Patrick. “The Reebok people have been down [to Washington] with the league people to go over thoughts on creating a jersey just for this game for the Washington Capitals. It will be a throwback; it will be reminiscent of the early days of the Caps. I am not sure if the pants will be white or red or blue, but they will be different.”

Regardless of what the skaters are sporting, Washington’s January 1 date with the Pens in Pittsburgh will be a memorable one for fans and players alike.

“This is a singular event,” declares Patrick. “It’s a regular-season game that just counts for two points in the standings like every other, but I think it’s something the players will look forward to all year and remember all their careers. I think they’re going to love playing outside. As you know, the event has gotten bigger every year. Now, it’s not just the game. There are festivities that go along with it for days before and after and the host city gets involved with it. I think they’ll enjoy it a great deal.”
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