PITTSBURGH PA - DECEMBER 31: The Washington Capitals pose for their team photo during the 2011 NHL Winter Classic Practice on December 31 2010 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
On May 28, 2010, the NHL announced what had been hinted at for months – that the Caps and Penguins would be in this year’s Winter Classic. Since then we’ve been waiting, anticipating, letting the excitement build up and the hype manifest itself in the traditionally understated way that always accompanies
Ovechkin vs. Crosby Washington vs. Pittsburgh showdowns. It took seven long months to get here…and when it finally did, it was as if someone pressed the fast-forward button. Before we knew it, the weekend was over and it was back to the grind for all involved.
But it didn’t end before leaving us all with a few lasting memories, lingering images and of course that warm, fuzzy feeling that seems to hang around any time the Caps take two points from a hated rival.
As I rolled into the Steel City early Friday evening, the first thing I was struck by was how completely Pittsburgh had been taken over by the impending Winter Classic. Bus stops and lampposts were covered with signs celebrating the game. Local buses flashed "Winter Classic 2011" and "Let’s Go Pens!" along with their usual route indicators. And everywhere, everywhere there were hockey fans – in Caps jerseys and Penguins jerseys, groups of them on every street bundled up in Winter Classic knit hats and jerseys and ready to kick off a weekend of celebration.
Now the NHL and NBC may have (rightfully) fretted over the weather and its impact on the broadcast, the ice, etc. And sure, intensity inside of Heinz Field would have been high no matter when the opening faceoff took place simply because of the event itself and the teams that were involved. But after seven long months of waiting, seven more hours didn't dampen the enthusiasm – it heightened it, as if we needed those last few hours to really hit our boiling point. The buzz in our hotel and on the streets heading to Heinz Field and even just outside the gates was palpable, and there was no better way to let it all out then under the stars and the bright lights.
Having never been to a Winter Classic before, I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect – but I certainly wasn’t prepared for just how awestruck I was upon entering the stadium, heading to the lower bowl and seeing the amazing work the NHL did to create a winter wonderland on a soggy football field. The rink itself was dwarfed by the field and the surrounding structure, and in turn made the entire place appear gigantic; seats were gradually being filled in by pockets of red, white and blue, pockets of blue, black and gold, excited murmurs growing as the crowd of 68,111 found their seats. Say what you will about how the NHL broadcasts the game and how they handle any number of big things...at this, they excel. It was a beautiful setting.
As I hiked up to my seat, I was struck by the sense that, had it been a regular game in the hostile environment of CONSOL Energy Center, I might have felt uncomfortable in my all-too-conspicuous red Backstrom jersey. Despite being surrounded by Pens fans, though, I found this wasn't the case - in fact I was pretty proud to be rocking the red. I was prouder still when the stadium was full and I could see huge sections of red-clad fans, when the anthem started and I could hear the "RED!" and "O!" ring out from all corners of Heinz Field. I loved hearing the mutters of disbelief and annoyance of Pens fans as they passed our mostly-red section, things like "where did all of you guys come from??" and "go home, Caps fans!" and "$*%&!".
As for the game itself...I saw the passes and the hits and the fights, cheered on every save and jumped to my feet when the Caps scored as usual. I counted down the final seconds and high-fived as many Caps fans as I could when the final horn sounded. It was a great game.
But the game itself, as entertaining and as chippy as it was, almost took a backseat to the spectacle of it all. It wasn't the specific plays that I'll remember but the excitement I felt at being one of 68,111 who got to see each one live and in person. It was the joy at being surrounded by Caps fans in an enemy building, at joining in with 30,000 strong in a rendition of "C-A-P-S CAPS CAPS CAPS", of celebrating a win all the way down that long, seemingly endless ramp that would deposit us back into the real world, of driving back to Virginia surrounded by cars whose bumpers and windows were decorated with Caps stickers and whose passengers were, like us, still wearing their Caps' gear.
It was a truly special experience from beginning to end. It may have rained and the ice may have been a mess and yes, we'd all have loved to see Alex Ovechkin pot one (or two or three or...) in such a setting, but none of that can dampen the overall experience for those of us who were lucky enough to have been there. Despite those fans who may try to brush it off as "just another game" and who mock us or our team for celebrating the win with such fervor, we know - as the players and coaches themselves knew and acknowledged over and over again - that it was two points but it was so much more. It was a game that displayed the rivalry in all its glory, on a huge stage with almost 70,000 people watching in person and millions more watching at home. It just doesn't get better than that.
Well...at least not in the regular season.
And to the city of Pittsburgh and to (most) Penguins fans who joined us in celebrating an amazing weekend and did so with class, thank you for being such gracious hosts. We were happy to pay you a visit - and even happier to pack up the win and take it back home with us, the best souvenir we could ask for.