Capitals hope to play in 2011 Winter Classic, and the NHL might be on their side

The Flyers practice at snowy Fenway Park on Thursday. A year from now, the Capitals may well be part of a Winter Classic.
The Flyers practice at snowy Fenway Park on Thursday. A year from now, the Capitals may well be part of a Winter Classic. (Elise Amendola/associated Press)
By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 1, 2010

EL SEGUNDO, CALIF. -- Washington Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau admits that he'll be more than a little bit jealous when he tunes into the Winter Classic on Friday.

Watching the Boston Bruins and Philadelphia Flyers face off at Fenway Park in the NHL's annual outdoor showcase will take him back to his youth, growing up playing hockey on outdoor rinks in suburban Toronto. It will also remind him of how tantalizingly close his team came to playing in Boston.

The Alex Ovechkin-led Capitals were a finalist for this year's game, but concerns from NBC about Washington's television ratings and countless other scheduling complications derailed those plans.

Boudreau and the Capitals might not have to wait much longer, though. A league source with knowledge of the situation confirmed Thursday that Washington is the NHL's strongest candidate to participate in the fourth annual game next New Year's Day.

"The league will be looking to work around the Capitals to get them into this game," said the source, who requested anonymity because league executives have not yet begun formal discussions for the 2011 Winter Classic.

Those talks will begin in earnest after the Olympic break in February, but the Capitals have plenty of reason to feel confident about their chances.

They have the game's most dynamic player in Ovechkin; a cast of young supporting stars such as Mike Green, the leading scorer among defensemen, and game-breaking forwards Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin; and they play an exciting brand of hockey that is underscored by their league-leading offense.

The Capitals have announced sellouts for each of their 18 home games at Verizon Center. The team has also become immensely popular on the road, where hundreds, sometimes thousands, of red, white and blue jerseys -- most of them with Ovechkin's name and No. 8 on the back -- dot the stands in visiting arenas from Vancouver to South Florida.

"I wish we were in it, and I think we should be in it because we have the most exciting player in the world and we want to expose him to as many TV sets as possible," Boudreau said. "It would be really good. Washington's hockey base is growing by leaps and bounds. It would be tremendous for the Washington area. In Maryland and Virginia, where they're starting to play hockey, to let them see what it's about. We deserve it."

One scenario for next year's Winter Classic being discussed informally among league officials would pit the Capitals and New York Rangers at Yankee Stadium. That plan, though, recently hit a stumbling block when the Yankees announced that they plan to host a college football bowl game between Christmas and New Year's Day for each of the next four seasons. Once a venue is secured, the league needs more than week to set up boards and ice.

The Capitals could alternately be matched up against Sidney Crosby and the rival Penguins at a Pittsburgh venue, another possibility being informally discussed, the source said. Although the Penguins played the Buffalo Sabres in the inaugural Winter Classic, the seven-game Capitals-Penguins semifinal playoff series last May became an instant classic among hockey fans.

Over the past three years, the league has alternated between Eastern Conference and Western Conference showdowns. The Sabres hosted the Penguins at Ralph Wilson Stadium in 2008, then the Chicago Blackhawks entertained the Detroit Red Wings at Wrigley Field last year. But the league is prepared to break with tradition and feature a second straight Eastern Conference matchup in an effort to accommodate the Capitals.

Owner Ted Leonsis has expressed a desire to have Washington participate, and in a brief e-mail this week said that his and the team's interest remains as strong as ever.

When the Capitals' locker room was opened to reporters Thursday at the Los Angeles Kings' practice facility, a television above the stalls was tuned into the NHL Network's coverage ahead of Friday's game. Ovechkin and Green watched as they removed their pads following practice.

"It's like being a little kid going outside to play hockey," said Ovechkin, who played on outdoor rinks in Moscow. "It's pretty good. It's something new for us and everybody wants to be there."

Veteran forward Mike Knuble, who spent the previous four seasons with the Flyers, hopes signing with Washington as a free agent in July only delayed his trip by a year.

"I know they went with Philly because of ratings," Knuble said. "I guess the league figured they would be better in the standings. They thought that Philly would draw better than Washington, ratings-wise. But you're talking about having the premier player in the league playing in a game that's proven to be really successful in drawing casual fans."

Boudreau added: "I don't think there's anyone in the National Hockey League that doesn't want to play in this game. To go on the bench with a tuque and a warm jacket with a crest on it. That really brings you back to your youth when your dad was coaching you."

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