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Capitals excited to bring NHL Winter Classic to D.C.

by Dan Rosen / NHL.com

WASHINGTON -- Simultaneous to the moment when the NHL first showed the sports world that a regular-season hockey game can be made into a major event in the United States, Washington Capitals majority owner Ted Leonsis raced to send an email to NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman that can only be characterized as a plea for his team and his city.

It was Jan. 1, 2008. The Buffalo Sabres were playing the Pittsburgh Penguins in a blizzard at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Leonsis was at home watching the game with his family with zero expectations or ideas for what the NHL Winter Classic would eventually turn into.

"I said, 'This is the greatest thing I've ever seen and I want one of these for our fans,'" Leonsis said, detailing what he wrote in his email to Commissioner Bettman. "It just had this big-event, big-game vibe about it, and I loved every minute of it."

As he watched the game between the Sabres and Penguins, Leonsis was also going back and forth in text messages with Mark Lerner, the principal owner of baseball's Washington Nationals. They were in agreement that the event had to come to Washington D.C. soon.

Their pleas have paid off. Outdoor hockey is coming to the nation's capital.

The 2015 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic will be played on Jan. 1, 2015, between the Capitals and Chicago Blackhawks at Nationals Park, the 41,546-seat home of the Nationals situated along the Capitol Riverfront in the Navy Yard section of Washington.

"This is a special city that has a history and a lure and a persona that is reflective of being a nation's capital," Commissioner Bettman said. "This is a city that knows how to do special things and put on big events, so we're just happy to be here and be part of that scene."

It will be the second appearance in the NHL Winter Classic for both teams. The Capitals can become the first team to win two NHL Winter Classic games. They beat the Pittsburgh Penguins 3-1 under the lights and in the rain at Heinz Field on Jan. 1, 2011.

The Blackhawks lost 6-4 to the Detroit Red Wings at Wrigley Field on Jan. 1, 2009.

"The biggest part for us is that it's a home game," Capitals goalie Braden Holtby said. "We know how special the fans here are and how much the fan base has grown in the last decade, and how passionate they are. I don't think a lot of people around the hockey world know that or appreciate that yet, and I think that it's great that this city is getting recognition for how passionate they are about hockey."

The first signs of the pomp and circumstance surrounding the NHL Winter Classic in D.C. were on display at Nationals Park during a press conference Tuesday. The event started almost exactly 100 days to the minute that the first puck is expected to be dropped on Jan. 1, 2015.

Cameras documented a stage that featured executives from all participants, including the NHL, the Capitals, Blackhawks, Bridgestone and premium TV network Epix.

Epix is partnering with the NHL on a two-part, eight-episode, all-access, behind-the-scenes series built around the NHL Winter Classic and the 2015 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series game between the Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks on Feb. 21, 2015 at Levi's Field in Santa Clara, Calif.

The NHL has partnered with HBO on three previous all-access series, but John Collins, the League's chief operating officer, said the big difference with Epix is in how wide-ranging the distribution will be for the new series.

Epix is available in 54 million homes and on 450 digital devices.

Epix has also guaranteed the NHL that the series will be available to any fan, with or without an Epix subscription. It will be streamed live for free on Epix.com, the Epix mobile and connected device apps, as well as on NHL.com, the NHL app, and the official websites and apps for the Capitals, Blackhawks, Sharks and Kings.

"The difference for our fans is it's going to be much more accessible," Collins said. "Basically, Epix has guaranteed us that any hockey fan who wants to see this series even if they don't have a subscription currently to Epix is going to be able to see that series."

The unveiling of Washington's NHL Winter Classic jersey created a stir during the press conference. Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Holtby came on stage to model the vintage deep red jerseys. As they were posing for the cameras, a season ticket holder screamed out, "When can I buy one?"

The jersey has features from jerseys worn by the Capitals over the past five decades. The Capitals announced they will be available for sale to the public in mid-November, but they can be pre-ordered immediately on Shop.NHL.com.

The Blackhawks jerseys for the NHL Winter Classic will be unveiled at a later date.

"I didn't know exactly what it was going to be for colors or anything, so when I saw it the first time it was something I think we all wanted," Holtby said of the jersey. "It's something very classic, history, something that represents Washington and the history of the game very well."

Despite losing the NHL Winter Classic game at Wrigley Field in 2009, Blackhawks CEO and president John McDonagh said the event changed the course of the franchise. Chicago has won the Stanley Cup twice since hosting the event.

He said the Blackhawks were honored to be selected to compete in another NHL Winter Classic. They also hosted a NHL Stadium Series game at Soldier Field last season.

"[The 2009 NHL Winter Classic] galvanized our fan base and gave us an opportunity to play on a very, very big stage, and our franchise has not been the same since," McDonagh said. "There is a very unique mystique and aura if you will about playing outdoors on New Year's Day in front of an international audience."

Leonsis felt it watching from his couch on New Year's Day 2008, and again watching in person at Heinz Field three years later. He called it an unforgettable day for him, his family, his team and the 20,000 Capitals fans who made the trip to Pittsburgh to be a part of it.

"The game produces lifelong memories," he said.

The NHL, the Capitals and Blackhawks are certain more unforgettable moments will be created in 100 days. Maybe there will even be some snow.

"There is something magical about it, so I was pretty relentless about it with the League," Leonsis said. "I'm very grateful to the commissioner for doing the research and believing that we could support and be a worthy host for this great game."

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