As we inch closer to this year's Winter Classic, there's a lot of buzz around the game between the Caps and Blackhawks on January 1 - most of it dedicated to pointing out how there's not a lot of buzz around the game. There seems to be a large group of people expending a large amount of energy denouncing everything about Thursday's matchup at Nationals Park, from the lack of a "rivalry" to the venue, and using these as reasons why they (and many others) will probably not watch.
That's fine. Everyone has the right to make that choice and not tune in, using whatever rationale they want to support that choice, and that's been the case since the game's inception seven years ago. They're just not all going to interest every hockey fan, no matter how devoted one might be to the sport.
But just as it's okay for people to decide ahead of time that this game won't be worth their time, it's also okay to be excited about it - because there is something exciting about it, and there is a buzz around it, no matter how much others may want to tell you there's not.
There are a handful of elements that can make a Winter Classic intriguing, both prior to and after the game is complete: rivalry, venue, weather and the actual hockey. But they don't all have to be present to make it a game worth watching - in fact, of the six games that have taken place to date, it would be hard to say that any of them ticked all four boxes (and some only managed one at most).
Five of the six games so far have been what one might call "true" rivalries, although opinions may vary on just how heated each of those rivalries have been in that particular moment. Only three - Wrigley Field in 2009, Fenway Park in 2010 and "the Big House" in 2014 - have been venues that inspire any kind of awe, and two of those three were probably more interesting than the game itself. The weather has also been hit or miss, with everything from the admittedly cool snow globe effect of the inaugural game to weather-related postponements in both 2011 and 2012. And as for the quality of the hockey itself, well... let's just say that most of these games wouldn't be considered "good" had they taken place under a roof.
So let's talk about the Caps and 'Hawks for a minute, and where they are or could be in each of these categories:
Rivalry - Okay, no, the Caps and Blackhawks don't have what one might call a storied rivalry. They're not in the same division or even the same conference, they came into the League at different times, and they've never played a playoff series against one another. If you want to go back into the annals of franchise history, the most interesting note you'll get about these two teams is that the Caps' first-ever win back in 1974-75 was a 4-3 victory over the Blackhawks... which isn't nothing for Caps fans, but probably has little bearing on today's teams.
That said, the lack of a real rivalry hasn't exactly made things dull when they meet, either, especially in recent years. Since the 2005-06 season, the Caps and Blackhawks have been two of the up-and-coming teams in the League, filled with homegrown talent that now forms the core of each - and the result has been some pretty exciting, intense games over the last decade. Neither team has dominated the series, with just two lopsided victories (one for each squad) in the nine games and four one-goal games and three needing overtime. A rivalry? Perhaps not. A fun matchup? Definitely.
Venue - When the worst-kept secret in hockey was made official and the NHL announced this year's game would be at Nationals Park, there were some grumblings about the lack of anything particularly memorable about the venue. Some wanted the game at Camden Yards, forgetting for a moment that while there are Caps fans in Charm City (and we love every one of them), it's the Washington Capitals, not Baltimore. Others advocated decrepit old RFK Stadium, forgetting that... well, it's decrepit and old, and you're more likely to get hit in the head by a chunk of concrete than a puck.
Thankfully no one was really in support of FedEx Field. Because no one wants to give Dan Snyder money.
But while Camden Yards and RFK may have a bit more character and history, it's worth noting that the games in the most character-filled and historic stadiums have almost been overshadowed by those venues. At Fenway Park, you could shell out hundreds of dollars for the awesome experience of getting to sit behind a pole; Wrigley Field had the storied past, but in the end it featured a familiar sight for Cubs fans: a Chicago loss. It's nice to have a venue that has its own story, and yet you shouldn't need one - the "gimmick" of this game, the draw, is that it's outdoors. Nationals Park is a nice, modern, convenient ballpark with views of the Washington Monument and the Capitol Building... and set in one of the more beautiful cities in the country. It enhances rather than overshadows the event, and makes it an inherently DC setting. What more could you ask for?
Weather - DC weather is known for being predictably unpredictable, as evidenced by the almost spring-like weather we've had over the last week, and it has been one of the biggest question marks surrounding this game since it was announced over a year ago: could Washington's temperamental climate behave long enough for a successful outdoor game?
Just a few days out, it's nothing but good news, as the weather forecast for Thursday is calling for temperatures in the mid-30s, clear, sunny and dry. In other words, perfect outdoor hockey weather. You can talk all you want about the optics of a nice snowfall creating a snow globe of sorts, and yes, it makes for some lovely pictures - but the fact is that it causes problems, whether it's reduced visibility for the players or the basic necessity of snow removal at regular intervals throughout the game.
And at least it's not going to rain. Looking at you, Pittsburgh.
Hockey - And herein lies the remaining x-factor. As we've said, the lack of a rivalry hasn't exactly meant that there's a lack of intensity when these two teams meet, and there's no reason that this can't be the case when they go head to head to kick off 2015. These are two teams with plenty to play for, both engaged in tight divisional battles and both riding hot streaks - and both teams have improved since their last meeting back in early November, a tight, hard-fought victory for the Caps. Add in the fact that there's a ton of star power between them, from Alex Ovechkin and Jonathan Toews to Patrick Kane to Nicklas Backstrom to Mike Green, Duncan Keith, Braden Holtby and beyond... these are good, often great players who have a tendency to step up when the stage is bigger and the spotlight is brighter. This could be a good one.
The reality is that all of these elements take a backseat to the overall experience, for the fans in attendance, the players suiting up and the people watching at home. And while there may not be the "hype" of 100,000+ in the stands or a bitter rivalry like Caps-Pens, this game still has all the makings of being a great experience for all who choose to take part in it - which at the end of the day is all that matters.
Well, that and two points. Go get 'em, Caps... and have fun, everyone!