To hockey players, there’s something idyllic about playing outside. It stirs up childhood memories of skating until the streetlights came on and their mothers called them in for dinner.
Outdoor rinks, either hand-built in backyards or simply frozen-over ponds, are where many NHL players began playing hockey. That’s what makes the Winter Classic, the league’s New Year’s Day spectacle, something to cherish.
“There’s a lot of excitement around the game,” Capitals defenseman Mike Green said. “Once you get out there and you’re in front of all the fans and our home crowd, it’ll be an exciting time for us.”
The Winter Classic, which this year will pit the Capitals against the Blackhawks at Nationals Park on Thursday (1 p.m., NBC), has blossomed into a must-see event since its inception in 2008.
The inaugural game between the Penguins and Sabres, played in front of a then-record 71,217 fans at Ralph Wilson Stadium, was accentuated by a Buffalo blizzard, giving it a snow globe-esque sheen.
Like many hockey fans, Ted Leonsis was captivated by that game’s grandeur. The Capitals owner, by his own admission, immediately began nudging NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman about hosting the Winter Classic. Serving as the visiting team and defeating Pittsburgh in 2011’s edition whetted Washington’s outdoor appetite.
“There’s two things you know about Ted: He’s passionate and he’s persistent,” Bettman said in September.
Previous iterations of the Winter Classic have spotlighted heated divisional or geographical rivalries, but nothing binds the Capitals and the Blackhawks. Each team’s recent play, however, should provide ample intrigue.
Washington, which went 8-2-3 in December, has started to resemble the multifaceted and structured unit that coach Barry Trotz expected it to be. Chicago, winner of two Stanley Cups in the past five seasons, is again among the NHL’s best, boasting roster depth that most of the league surely envies.
“They’ve done everything right,” Trotz said of Chicago. “I think the Blackhawks are probably the gold standard right now in the National Hockey League. They’ve won some championships, so I think you try to emulate success. … We’ve both come from the ashes, if you will, to be pretty strong franchises.”
On Thursday, the Capitals and the Blackhawks will march down a runway erected in center field at Nationals Park and onto a rink situated in the infield surrounded by a sellout crowd.
Peel away the pageantry, though, and the game is still worth two points, which cannot get lost amid the splendor.
“It happens to be on national television and outside,” Capitals forward Eric Fehr said, “but at the end of the day, it’s two points in the regular season that we desperately need right now.”
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