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

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."

"For all the years when Pittsburgh fans dominated in Verizon Center, there's a little bit of payback," added Mike Reidy, a 12-year season ticket-holder from Springfield.

And the team already has been exposed to a massive audience through its participation in the HBO series. The first episode, which initially aired Dec. 15, is expected to attract a final audience of about 2.8 million viewers on television and online. By comparison, the most watched regular season Capitals game in Comcast SportsNet history attracted an audience of about 134,000 households in the Washington market. The HBO series has garnered so much positive attention for the league that some have speculated that future Winter Classic participants could be required to participate in a similar show.

And one of those future participants figures to again be this Capitals team. Team owner Ted Leonsis said Saturday that the game will come to Washington within the next two or three years, and that the franchise could fill a large outdoor arena entirely with its own fans.

"To think that 30,000 people would come New Year's Day, a five-hour car ride away, shows how much we've developed a loyal fanbase in our market," Leonsis said before the game. "We still have a lot of work to do, but it shows that our franchise is really maturing, that our fans are in love with the team, and that they've entrusted us with their time and their passion."

Of course, were the Winter Classic to come to Washington, weather would undoubtedly be a concern. Warm weather and the threat of rain convinced NHL officials on Friday to push back the game's scheduled start time from 1 to 8 p.m. Friday's outdoor practice, on an unseasonably sunny and warm day, led to potholes on the ice and safety concerns.

"That ice was melting faster than Frosty the Snowman," Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau later said.

By Saturday evening, the temperatures were dropping but the rain returned, especially late in the game, leaving standing water on the ice and a bizarre trail of drops trailing the puck. Because of strong winds, the teams switched sides midway through the third period, and workers cleaned water off the ice during breaks.

"It's amazing. Honestly, that's all I can say - it's amazing," said James McLeod of Fredericksburg, who recently gave up his Redskins season tickets in order to upgrade his Capitals seats. "I hope so many things. I don't want to hope too much, but the sky's the limit after this, in my opinion."

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