“We lived in three places – the school, the church and the skating rink – but our real life was on the skating rink.”
For over 700 men, playing in the NHL seemed like a far off fantasy. Even Sidney Crosby didn’t believe he’d make it until the “Sidney Crosby Sweepstakes” that was the 2005 NHL Entry Draft. Many of those dreams began on a frozen pond. That pond was everything: love, passion, friendship, brotherhood and most of all – life. Growing up brought those boys inside to the big stage. But a few years ago, the NHL decided to try something a little different and brought the game back to its outdoor roots.
The first outside regular season game in the NHL came in 2003 with the Molson Canadian Heritage Classic between the Montreal Canadiens and the Edmonton Oilers. After the Canadiens 4-3 win in Edmonton, the NHL unveiled the Bridgestone Winter Classic in 2008.
The first Classic, played in Buffalo between the hometown Sabres and the visiting Pittsburgh Penguins, resulted in a 2-1 shootout win for the Penguins. Since then, three more Classics have been played. The Detroit Red Wings took on the Chicago Blackhawks in 2009. Boston played host to Philadelphia on January 1, 2010. This year, the Penguins played in their second New Year’s Day extravaganza while hosting the rival Washington Capitals.
This hockey fan was fortunate enough to have Santa bring the only thing she wanted for Christmas: a ticket to become a human icicle at Heinz Field on January 1 while sporting her hometown black and gold.
There is a certain atmosphere at a hockey game that cannot be explained. Until you have been to a game with thousands of other fans yelling at your favorites, whether in elation or aggravation, you cannot fully understand it. There is something completely different about a hockey arena. So, as a hockey fan that has been to many games in several different arenas on varying levels, taking my seat in section 518 at Heinz Field that night felt different. I had a hard time figuring out what it was that felt so different until warm-ups began on the ice below.
Everything just felt right. This was completely different than any hockey game I had ever been to. Yes, it rained. Yes, the ice was terrible. But watching hockey outdoors like it all started had an entirely different atmosphere.
What else felt right? The insults and provocation being thrown around by those not even on the ice. The levels of animosity between the teams and even their fans can only truly make sense to a hockey fan. Hockey rivalries run deep no matter what rivalry you associate with. Whether it’s the Pens/Caps, Bruins/Canadiens or Flames/Oilers, a fair share of brawls have broken out on the ice as well as off.
Obviously, any game against a team like the Washington Capitals – or the Philadelphia Flyers for that matter – will be completely different than anything else. Games like that are not for the faint of heart and young children should probably be supplied with earplugs. While most of the insults cannot be published here, a good guideline would be to think of some of the foulest words you’ve heard, add a player’s name and use your imagination.
As a born and raised Penguins’ fan, perhaps the most difficult to stomach was the section of Caps fans below me booing Mario Lemieux. The savior of Pittsburgh hockey and a legend of the sport, Lemieux is one of those players who should never be booed no matter your team of choice. However, that was exactly what happened before the ceremonial puck drop. All bets were off and the hostility began.
The Pens drew first blood on the Caps in the second period as Evgeni Malkin ripped the puck behind Washington goaltender Semyon Varlamov on a wrist shot. The sea of black, gold and blue (the Penguins’ Winter Classic jerseys for this year) exploded as the goal horn sounded across the field.
Washington was more than happy to crash the party, though. Minutes later, Mike Knuble notched a power play goal to answer Malkin’s tally. Marc-Andre Fleury left his crease and misplayed the puck behind the net allowing Eric Fehr’s first goal of the night to bring the Capitals a 2-1 lead into the second intermission. Unfortunately for the Penguins, Fehr sealed the deal in the third period with his second goal of the night.
Despite the loss, the rain and the lack of a voice in the aftermath, the 2011 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic was easily one of the best nights I can remember. It was the first Winter Classic played at night after the rain forced the opening faceoff back. It was the first opportunity I had to watch the carnage on and off the ice at a game against the Capitals.
Yes, it was a heart-wrenching loss for those loyal to the black and gold. But in the end, it was still a regular season game worth two points in the standings. The Capitals may have walked away with the points, but the players and the fans walked away with an experience they’ll never forget.