Despite impending rain, NHL expects Winter Classic between Capitals and Penguins to be played as scheduled

The Capitals took their practice outside, to the rink at the Chevy Chase Country Club, in preparation for the Winter Classic in Pittsburgh this weekend.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 31, 2010; 12:07 AM

PITTSBURGH - With the NHL's Winter Classic just a day away and weather forecasts continuing to predict rain on Jan. 1 along the banks of the three rivers here, league officials contend that there is no reason to believe the outdoor showcase between the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins won't be played as scheduled at Heinz Field.

In a news conference Thursday, John Collins, the NHL's chief operating officer, said the league's priority remains to have the game begin at the planned 1 p.m. start time on Saturday, with an option to delay the contest until as late as 8 p.m.

"We're planning to play at one o'clock," Collins said. "We've got maximum flexibility to do what we need to do to get that game in on Saturday. If for some reason it was completely unplayable, we have other options. But we fully expect to get the game in on Saturday."

Weather reports on Thursday predicted a high temperature near 50 degrees on Saturday with rain showers. In addition to possibly pushing back the start, the NHL said it is prepared to resume playing the contest on Saturday in the event of a long postponement mid-game, according to a league spokesman. If the game cannot be completed, then the NHL will move the contest to a 12 p.m. start on Sunday, which is forecasted to be overcast but has a lower chance of precipitation, with temperatures in the mid-30s.

The last option, should the entire weekend not have suitable playing conditions, would be to reschedule the contest for later in the season, but move it indoors to Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh. In the case of a cancellation, the NHL would refund the face value of each ticket through the ticketing outlet that was used for purchase.

The moderate air temperatures are not a prime concern for the NHL, the league's lead rink architect Dan Craig said this week, but rain holds greater implications. Even a slight drizzle will freeze in uneven patterns on the ice surface and could be a possible hazard for players.

"I think what we're looking at is how do we run this game at the highest level, at the NHL regular season competitive level, and what can we do with the fans," Collins said. "We've got fans coming from lots of different places . . . who are expecting the game to be played at 1" o'clock.

Officials are juggling the dueling interests of player safety and making sure the event on the NHL's largest stage, aside from the Stanley Cup playoffs, goes off as planned when determining when the contest will take place.

Washington General Manager George McPhee said Thursday that he had no reservations about the Capitals taking the ice at Heinz Field, nor doubts that the Winter Classic will occur this weekend.

"I'm not concerned. This game will be played," McPhee said. "Certainly, we'll take all things into consideration - what's best for the fans, what's best for the players, what's best for the league - and we'll make decisions accordingly. We all just have this feeling, though, that this game is going to take place this weekend and there won't be any issues. I think luck will be on our side. It will happen."

On Wednesday, the Capitals ventured outdoors and held a practice at the Chevy Chase Club to begin making any necessary adjustments prior to their only practice at Heinz Field, which is scheduled for 2 p.m. on Friday. The conditions that day were bright, sunny and 46 degrees - a stark contrast to the game-day forecast - but the players said they weren't worried about the weather.

"We're just going to let Mother Nature bring what she brings," defenseman John Erskine said. "If it rains, it rains. If it snows, it snows. We're just going to go out there and play like we would in any other game."

Coach Bruce Boudreau said he's more interested in getting assimilated to the facilities at Heinz Field than he is with the weather. Friday in Pittsburgh is forecasted to be sunny, with highs in the low 50s.

"It's not like I'm going to sit and lose sleep . . . and make contingency plans of my own," Boudreau said. "They'll tell us what to do. We're either going to play and we're going to play our [rear ends] off, or we're not going to play."

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