When the week started, T.J. Oshie was unsure of all the details. The Washington Capitals forward knew the gist of the story — that both of his grandfathers served together in the Navy, and then their kids (Oshie’s parents) went on to meet in Seattle, completely independent of that connection. That happy coincidence of family history made Oshie feel a special connection to his first outdoor game, Saturday’s 5-2 Capitals win over the Toronto Maple Leafs in the NHL Stadium Series at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis.
By the end of the week, Oshie had photos of the USS Saint Paul in his locker room stall at the Naval Academy. That ship was where his grandfathers served together, so the Naval Institute pulled photos from its archives and passed them along to Oshie before the game, a personal touch on a personal weekend for several of the Capitals.
“It’s a huge honor,” Oshie said. “I try to say it as much as I can, but you can’t thank the military enough, you can’t appreciate them enough, for the sacrifices them and their family make. So for us to come to these facilities and these stadiums and play these games, you just feel like you’re in a part of history here. And as Americans, I’m sure if you’re from a different country, it probably doesn’t quite feel that way, but for us it does feel really special. It’s great for the NHL, it’s great for hockey, and it’s great for the Americans that are able to play in the games.”
Just as the NFL is coming off a season that was headlined by players kneeling during the national anthem to protest social injustice, actions criticized by President Trump as being unpatriotic and an insult to the military, the NHL is embracing its relationship with the armed forces. Saturday’s game between the Capitals and Maple Leafs was the first outdoor game the NHL has played at a service academy, but it’s expected to be the beginning of a series, as the league has also explored playing at Army and the Air Force Academy.
“It really is a tribute to the men and women in the armed forces and all they do to protect our freedom on a daily basis, so it was certainly a nod to the military,” NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said last month as preparations for Saturday’s game got underway. “We are excited about the creative elements associated with that. We are looking forward to the future events with that, as well.”
With more than 29,000 fans in attendance for Washington’s win over Toronto, Saturday’s was a more intimate setting than most outdoor games, often played in baseball parks or larger football stadiums. Players raved about everything from the pageantry to the ice conditions. Capitals center Evgeny Kuznetsov even said he would like to have that sheet of ice in Washington’s Capital One Arena. Windy conditions forced the teams to cancel practices and morning skates outdoors at Navy, but by the time the game started, Oshie said the gusts weren’t much of a factor.
“When you’re skating around, you’d feel it,” Oshie said. “You’ve got one hand on your stick, and when you get a gust, your stick kind of moves a little bit. But in a game, you’re just playing. Everything is just too fast to think or worry about where the wind’s coming or things like that.”
A power surge midway through the third period that caused a 15-minute blackout and prompted NBC affiliates to switch to local news instead of the game was the one embarrassing hitch to an otherwise impressive production. In the arena, fans flipped on their phone flashlights, hoping to illuminate the ice. On the Capitals bench, some players danced to the music being pumped through the stadium.
“I was thinking, ‘Oh, no,’ but the only good thing was it was only  minutes,” Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom said. “I thought it was going to be longer, actually. … I loved everything about the atmosphere. Such a cool intro, I think. I was just enjoying everything. I feel like maybe we got some energy off that, too.”
Capitals Coach Barry Trotz said his best moment was one that happened before the game even started. He greeted midshipmen when the Capitals arrived at the stadium. The team was led to the rink by bagpipes playing the “Top Gun” theme song, and then those same midshipmen Trotz met earlier lined the platform around the rink as the American and Canadian national anthems played. Fireworks and a flyover completed the experience. If this was a test case, it passed, and it’s unlikely to be the last NHL game with the military as a backdrop.
“You’re looking at these young men who serve us and give us the privilege to do what we get to do, the freedoms that we have,” Trotz said. “That was probably my greatest moment, meeting some of the young people who are serving our country.”