Washington Capitals get big-time exposure in NHL Winter Classic game with Pittsburgh Penguins

Rain or shine, Capitals fans make the most of tailgating outside Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pa., for the Winter Classic.
By Dan Steinberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 2, 2011; 12:13 AM

IN PITTSBURGH The standings will show that Saturday night's NHL Winter Classic - an outdoor game played in front of more than 68,000 fans on a soggy Pittsburgh evening - counted exactly the same for the Washington Capitals as the 39 games that preceded it, and as the 42 games that will follow. The Capitals won, 3-1, behind two goals from unheralded winger Eric Fehr, earning the standard two points in the standings.

For the tens of thousands of Washingtonians who poured into Western Pennsylvania for this New Year's Day event, though, this burst of national attention meant something far more than its result.

"It's validation," said Patrick Thompson, a 22-year-old who said he's rooted for the Capitals since he was in kindergarten.

"It's legitimacy," said John Myers, a 34-year-old who has followed the team his entire life.

"It's like the Super Bowl, like the Super Bowl of hockey," said Diana Pumphrey, a 66-year-old who has been a Capitals fan since the franchise was created in 1974.

It's a clunky metaphor, of course. For winning this game - held outdoors on New Year's Day annually since 2008 - the Capitals received zero championship trophies or banners. But the hype surrounding the Caps' victory over the rival Penguins - which included four hour-long behind-the-scenes documentaries on HBO - brought Washington's hockey franchise a level of attention perhaps unprecedented since its only appearance in the Stanley Cup Finals in 1998.

The NHL credentialed 511 media members from 125 outlets for the game, about the same as for a Stanley Cup finals and about double the media contingent for a normal Capitals playoff game. Four years after averaging just 13,929 fans at home games, the Capitals sold 20,000 tickets for this road game, and NHL and team officials estimated another 7,000 to 10,000 Capitals fans bought tickets on the secondary market.

One fan group alone - the Caps Road Crew - sent nine tour buses carrying 450 people to Pittsburgh. More than 400 other fans made travel arrangements through the team.

"There's something higher here than the two points," said longtime hockey broadcaster Mike Emrick, who called the game for NBC's prime-time telecast. "The two points are important, sure, but there's something higher here. The Caps have got a great thing going already, but will [the Winter Classic] make it bigger? Yeah, it sure will."

For one weekend in Pittsburgh, it was hard to ignore how much progress the franchise has already made. Washington sports fans are famously thin-skinned about the never-ending fan invasions staged by opposing teams, with Pittsburgh's Penguins and Steelers particularly enthusiastic trespassers.

On this weekend, though, the streets of Pittsburgh were thick with young Washington area residents wearing red jerseys and chanting for their team. Security employees at the Hofbrauhaus - a downtown bar - said on New Year's Eve that they had never seen as many visiting fans, for any team, in any sport.

"You can't turn a corner without seeing a handful of [Capitals fans], on every corner," said Howard Frame, 38, a Capitals fan since 1986. "You walk into any bar or restaurant and it's like the Red Army's invaded."

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