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Winter Classic turned into a showcase on slush

By Tracee Hamilton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 2, 2011; 12:11 AM

PITTSBURGH

Like many a good party, the NHL's Winter Classic here Saturday night was marred a bit by the lack of one simple yet crucial ingredient: ice.

Both teams slogged through some Slushie-like conditions on the temporary rink at Heinz Field before the Capitals came away with a 3-1 victory over the Penguins.

Afterward, owner Ted Leonsis, wearing a bright red sweater and an ear-to-ear grin, was the only member of Washington's entourage who was happy with the ice. The result might have had something to do with that.

"It was the greatest [ice] I've ever experienced," Leonsis said.

Would he like to hold this event in Washington? "Let's go back out and play another one now!"

That's an attitude Gary Bettman will love. The commissioner said after the game that the league office closely monitored conditions. "This is reality hockey when you take it outdoors," he said. "It becomes a little unpredictable."

It's unfair to expect Bettman to be Mr. Freeze, but if the league is going to bill the Winter Classic as its Super Bowl, it's going to need to handle the event with care. The weather was not a deciding factor; no one was injured as a result of soft ice. But the league may have missed a chance to bring some non-hockey fans into the fold - and if you think that's not part of the purpose of this game, then think again.

Despite the switch in start times from day to night, the event itself was a lot of fun - 68,111 fans of both teams thought so - and it wasn't a boring game by any means. But it rained during the morning, the temperature was 59 degrees around 3 p.m. and had only fallen to 52 when the puck dropped. Then came the third period, half of which was played in a heavy rain that caused the puck to shoot up plumes of water as it slid across the ice. Still, players agreed that the ice hardened as the game went on.

"The first period was soft," defenseman Scott Hannan said. "The second and third were better. It's good to get that game finished."

"It got better as the game went on," defenseman John Carlson said. "The ice was bumpy, no potholes, no bad bounces."

Granted, it's unfair to complain about the weather for a hockey game after flooding in California, tornadoes in the Midwest and blizzards in the Northeast. But if you're going to stage an outdoor hockey game you'd better hold it somewhere with some guaranteed ice and snow, like Manhattan, or the Metrodome.

The NHL did yeoman's work in producing a playable surface at all, but players sometimes seemed to be skating through water - as indeed they were. Alex Ovechkin had a slip and fall in the first period. On the Caps' first goal, in the second period, Mike Green took a shot on goal, fell in the crease and Mike Knuble just kept chipping away, literally, until the puck finally got by Marc-Andre Fleury.

"We were hoping they'd call it on account of rain in the third," Coach Bruce Boudreau said.

That was a definite possibility, and the NHL had detailed plans in place for such an occurrence. The Winter Classic may be a return to hockey's roots, but Saturday's game featured two of the most skilled teams in the NHL. No one wants to watch Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby slog around the ice like, well, farm kids on a frozen pond. They entered the game dead even in career points (571), and what started as playful jockeying has turned into a real rivalry in the Bird-Magic mold.

And it's not just the star players. Overall, as Keith Jackson would say, these two teams plain don't like each other. The Caps have played the Penguins more than any other team in the league, and the series stands at a taut 84-86-16-5. The Caps are 8-0-2 in their past 10 meetings and are 4-0-0 on New Year's Day against Pittsburgh.

It's the kind of rivalry the NHL needs to showcase on a holiday Saturday night on prime time television, and it's the kind of opportunity to grow its fan base that the NHL doesn't want to miss, or waste. Bettman said the prime time factor was not a consideration in moving the start time but admitted, "That's something we'll have to discuss with our network broadcast partners, obviously. . . . I can't tell you how good or bad this was. My guess is it was good until we ultimately see the ratings."

The idea of an outdoor game is a grand and noble one, and the league should stick with it. It honors the sport's traditions in a way that throwback jerseys and "The Hockey Song" just can't, despite a loss of intimacy with the fans seated far from the glass. It exposes non-hockey fans to the game, on a holiday, as an alternative to 12 hours of football.

But if the NHL hopes to keep the Classic from turning into a gimmick, it needs to make sure fans and potential fans alike see the sport at its very best.

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