On Jan. 1, 2008, when the inaugural NHL Winter Classic debuted in Buffalo, N.Y., two of this city’s most powerful sports figures exchanged emails, hoping the outdoor game would soon visit Washington D.C. “We’ve got to get this,” Nationals owner Mark Lerner recalled writing to Capitals owner Ted Leonsis, seven years before it will become a reality.
On Tuesday afternoon, when three Capitals stepped from the visitors’ dugout at Nationals Park sporting their new red sweaters, they walked onto the baseball field where, in the thick of winter, hockey will soon be played. Exactly 100 days from the introductory news conference, an ice rink will sprawl across the diamond from third base to first, hosting the 2015 Winter Classic between Washington and the Chicago Blackhawks.
“Pretty pumped about it,” Lerner said, looking across a sun-splashed park filled with logos for the annual outdoor event’s latest installment. “It’s nice to finally see it officially announced.”
Everyone had known for months that the Capitals would host the Blackhawks, the first inter-conference Winter Classic. Several weeks ago, word also leaked that Nationals Park was the site and that the NHL would partner with cable network Epix for an all-access show similar to HBO’s “24/7.”
The drama for Tuesday, then, fell onto the unveiling of Washington’s uniforms, a custom design paying tribute to the franchise’s heritage with the Washington Monument forming the W’s middle tip and three stars hovering above to represent the District, Maryland and Virginia.
“We have the ultimate reality show,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said. “Sports is the ultimate reality show. Now throw in the weather.”
Ah yes, Mother Nature. She threw a wrench into Washington’s last Winter Classic appearance, a 2011 victory over the Penguins. Unseasonably warm temperatures and drizzles turned the Heinz Field rink into slush, which pushed the puck drop past dusk.
The dampness, however, never damaged what became a joyous night for the Capitals, two of whom attended Tuesday’s event, modeling the jerseys and later taking batting practice. Captain Alex Ovechkin grew up playing outdoor hockey in Russia. In Sweden, center Nicklas Backstrom awoke on weekends praying for good weather, and hoped for the same on Jan. 1.
“When you walk in there, the fireworks around you, it was pretty cool,” Backstrom said. “You’re a little nervous when you walk in there, but as soon as you step foot on the ice, you’re ready for the game. That’s all I can remember. We won, so that helps make it more fun too.”
Said Ovechkin: “It’s just unbelievable atmosphere. You start feeling it right away.”
When the news conference ended and everyone scattered, groundskeepers packed up the banners and the nets, which had been made into a makeshift rink. Nationals and New York Mets trickled into the outfield to warm up. Playoff baseball was approaching here at the southeastern D.C. ballpark, and hockey was not far behind.