When the Capitals prepared for the 2011 NHL Winter Classic in Pittsburgh, they didn’t know exactly what to expect. They heard the buzz and saw the buildup, but until they were actually playing a game under the lights at Heinz Field on New Year’s Day, they didn’t truly understand and relish the moment.
Eleven players who took part in that contest are on the Capitals’ current roster, and they’re excited to bring the event to Washington in 2015.
“Even if I didn’t have success in the first one, I’m excited to play in another one,” said Eric Fehr, who recorded two goals in Washington’s 3-1 win over Pittsburgh in 2011. “It’s a really unique experience, something I definitely look back on with good memories but to have one at home would be even cooler. To have our own fans there and depending on where it would be — I think it’d be cool to have it at the National Mall or something like that, but I don’t think that’s possible. It’s definitely a cool experience especially with HBO following, doing a series. It has a lot of build-up; it feels like more than one game.”
Said Mike Green: “I think it’d be cool, yeah. I remember the first one it was such a unique experience. It’s a day I’ll never forget and honestly I have a hard time remembering yesterday.”
Back in the early stages of the 2010-11 season, Brooks Laich was skeptical that all the hoopla surrounding the Winter Classic was warranted. After the game, though, he retracted that sentiment having genuinely enjoyed the experience.
Washington’s Winter Classic in 2015 will mark the seventh time the league has held the marquee contest. But despite the Classic’s status as a regular NHL event and the addition of several other outdoor games — the league will hold a total of six outdoor games this season including the 2014 Winter Classic between the Red Wings and Maple Leafs at Michigan Stadium — Laich said there is an enduring allure in this event for both players and fans.
“We’ve only been in one; for us, it was a tremendous experience. The novelty hasn’t worn off because people here haven’t experienced that event,” Laich said. “If you did one five times a year here, ‘Okay, it’s just another outdoor game’. There’s been now a lot of outdoor games, but our market here, our fans here haven’t experienced that except for the ones that drove to Pittsburgh.”
The Winter Classic has become one of the NHL’s key opportunities to draw in the casual fan around the holidays by pitting familiar rivals against each other in an unusual environment.
The buildup took another step forward in 2011, when beginning with the Capitals-Penguins contest, HBO’s “24/7” first documented both teams in the weeks leading up to the contest with unprecedented closed-door access. HBO will air a third season of “24/7 Road to the Winter Classic” this year with Detroit and Toronto. Whether that would continue next year is uncertain, but Coach Adam Oates may have a few questions about it.
“I don’t know if you have to do the HBO series if you do it, do you?” Oates asked reporters Friday before being told it’s been part of the Winter Classic for three events now. “Doesn’t mean they get in my room.”
While being under the NHL and HBO microscope can be trying at times, Fehr wouldn’t mind getting to show off the sport and offer a window into the daily life of a hockey team again.
“Sometimes it is a little frustrating when things aren’t going well and the camera’s right in your face or you have an injury and the cameras want to know everything and see everything, but at the end of the day I think it’s great for the fans to learn what we do,” Fehr said. “I know a few people talked to me about it after they said they didn’t realize we were actually playing a system and had a plan on the ice. We weren’t just skating around. You think it’s crazy to think like that, but that’s the reality of some sports fans watching hockey, to give them a look inside the dressing room to see there’s a strategy and see how hard we work every day I think people can get a good appreciation for the sport.”