For the second time in the past four seasons the Pittsburgh Penguins will have the privilege of playing in the Bridgestone Winter Classic when the National Hockey League’s marquee regular-season event comes to Heinz Field on Jan. 1, 2011.
|Jordan Staal is one of seven Pegnuins to play in the 2008 Winter Classic against the Buffalo Sabres at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo, N.Y. Credit - Getty Images |
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman announced at his pre-Stanley Cup Final media conference on Friday that the Penguins, who played in the inaugural event at Ralph Wilson Stadium against the Buffalo Sabres in 2008, will be hosting Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals.
“We are thrilled to be a part of the Winter Classic this year,” Penguins general manager Ray Shero said. “We have now been fortunate to be a part of two Winter Classics. To have it in Pittsburgh is going to be exciting for our team and our fans. Washington and Pittsburgh has turned into a great rivalry with some really good games. To have it in this setting should be very special.”
Pittsburgh won the first Winter Classic, 2-1, in a shootout over Buffalo behind a Sidney Crosby
goal on Jan. 1, 2008. In addition to the Penguins picking up the dramatic victory that afternoon, the NHL-record crowd of 71,217 and snowflakes falling from the sky provided the perfect background setting for the NHL’s second foray into outdoor hockey.
“Just playing in front of 70,000 fans was pretty remarkable,” said center Jordan Staal
, one of seven current Penguins to suit up in the ’08 contest. “It felt like we were football players getting jacked up for a game. It was pretty special. To be able to play an NHL game outside was the best part. Having the cold air blowing as you skated was pretty neat.”
“It certainly exceeded my personal expectations,” said Shero, who enjoyed the Winter Classic so much he took his family to watch the 2010 game in Boston as fans. “I don’t know if our team or staff had any expectations. NBC’s coverage, the majestic scene with the snow falling, 70,000 people in the stadium and the game going into a shootout and from our standpoint getting the shootout win – it was pretty dramatic.
“I have said that game is one of the highlights of my career. I will always look back at that and say that it was a privilege to be a part of. That will be the case for the guys we have and the Washington Capitals who have never played in this game. It’s something to look forward to and enjoy.”
There will be plenty of newcomers on both teams who will be experiencing outdoor hockey at the NHL level for the first time. For the Penguins, only Staal, Crosby, Evgeni Malkin
, Brooks Orpik
, Sergei Gonchar, Kris Letang
and Tyler Kennedy
played in the ’08 game, as Marc-Andre Fleury
, Maxime Talbot and Mark Eaton each missed the game due to injury.
On Washington’s side, only goaltender Jose Theodore and forward Jason Chimera has previous experience playing outdoors. Theodore (Montreal) and Chimera (Edmonton) played in the 2003 Heritage Classic.
While Staal doesn’t think the Penguins will have a huge advantage over the Capitals due to their previous experience, he does believe knowing what to expect from the elements will help Pittsburgh.
“You can’t really change the fact that it is going to be cold,” Staal said. “That is something all the players are going to have to deal with. The heated benches were pretty nice in Buffalo. You throw on a few more undershirts and maybe a tuque or something like that.”
Defenseman Alex Goligoski was playing for the Penguins’ Wilkes-Barre/Scranton affiliate in ’08, so he is looking forward to playing in the ’11 contest.
“It should be a lot of fun,” Goligoski said. “I had a chance to watch with great interest the last time Pittsburgh played in the game. Just seeing these kinds of games on television is really cool. I’m really excited to be a part of it now. This will be my first time since when I was a young kid growing up.
“It should be a very interesting experience. Everyone has said they had a really great time and would love to do it again. It’s pretty cool that we are going to get that opportunity.”
What should make the experience even more special this time around is that the game will be played in the city of Pittsburgh for the first time. Both Staal and Goligoski are excited to play in front of their hometown fans.
“It will be crazy, no question,” Staal said. “Our fans are unbelievable around here. I am sure they will be that much crazier at that game. It will be nice to have the home-ice advantage behind us.”
“I think a game like this is going to be a lot like a Steelers game,” Goligoski added. “I have been to a couple of those and I expect the crowd to be really crazy like that.”
The Winter Classic has become the NHL’s pre-eminent regular-season event no matter who is playing in the game. Having the Penguins and Capitals, two of the league’s most-popular current franchises with arguably the top-two players in the world in Crosby and Ovechkin, do battle should only increase the attention paid to the game.
“It’s going to be a great show for sure,” Staal said. “It is always a great rivalry against those guys. There’s no greater attraction than having those two superstars go at it in an outdoor game.”
“Since they started the Winter Classic it has turned into a really big deal,” Goligoski said. “I know all the players want to play in it. It has become a staple for the NHL. It’s a very cool opportunity for us.”