The unofficial announcement was finally made ending months of awkward speculation regarding the not-so-secret location of this year’s (well 2015’s) Winter Classic between the Washington Capitals and the Chicago Blackhawks. It will be the first time non-conference teams will face off as well as the first out door game happening below the Mason-Dixon line (there’s ice that far south).
In the build up to the announcement many, many interesting options were thrown around as possibilities for the venue but National’s Park won out. And, as with everything that happens regarding the Caps the hoots and hollars came out about how it’s a terrible choice for a venue. Predictable, pedestrian and filled with “fabricated character” are just a few of the responses.
Let’s just say, that writer’s column is predictable, pedestrian and full of fabricated character too, but, of course when you get dogged on your column so much for that stuff already anyhow then you’re bound to lash out from time to time at others. Maybe, when they get something better of an original idea to write it won’t be as uninspiring and uneducated as this one.
Suggesting the Washington Capitals play anywhere other than in the greater Washington area as the home team defeats the purpose of having them as a home team. Under only one set of circumstance does the home team not play at home, and that’s the confounding NFL situation with Giants and Jets being “New York” labeled but playing a short 10 miles from midtown Manhattan in New Jersey in the Meadowlands complex. To ask DC to move sites would be like asking Pittsburgh to host the game in West Virginia. Sure there are people in WV who are fans but then it’s not really Pitt hosting. Imagine the outrage by Pennsylvanians if the Philadelphia Flyers hosted it across the Delaware River in New Jersey? Or had the Rangers played at the Meadowlands as the home team rather than in the Bronx? Or Detroit having the game in Windsor Ontario right across the bridge? It would be insane to think, and those really aren’t far trips either mind you, they’re all part of the same metropolitan region but obviously lack the Public Relations sparkle that holding it “at home” would really have.
The fabricated character comment came from the same writer who suggested Camden Yards as a better baseball stadium. Because when Oriole Park at Camden Yards was built in 1992 it wasn’t fabricating character at all trying to tie itself onto the legend of Babe Ruth. It was designed as a faux-retro sand box of a stadium drawing its sole architectural highlight from the B&O Warehouse with everything else basically designed to appear throwback even though it was new. And let it not be forgotten that the beautiful city view was anesthetized when Hilton put up their building directly outside the stadium. Although it was an instant success from an attendance point of view in replacing the old Memorial Stadium nothing of note really has happened there other than Cal Ripken, Jr. broke Lou Gehrig’s record of 2,130 consecutive games played. Exactly what makes it full of character other than the Inner Harbor’s charm?
It’s also not exactly huge. 45,971 in a normal configuration with a max on standing room just over 48,000. While that’s well within the range of the 2009, 2010 or 2012 attendances at other ballparks, it’s underwhelming at best, especially coming out of a record setting 105,491 at Michigan Stadium for last year’s game.
Furthermore, let’s consider as well, the location is in Baltimore. No offense to Baltimore, but it is not DC. The point of picking the Capitals as the home team would be to have them play in their own town, not some other town just because there happens to also be a stadium there. Holding it in Baltimore would be a public relations nightmare for the league having to explain the choice of holding a DC sporting even anywhere other than in Washington, DC
Baltimore is roughly 40 miles from DC and with the notorious traffic that occurs between Beltways it’s well over an hour drive even on a good day and that’s just for city residents. It doesn’t even begin to address the huge Arlington portion of the fanbase who would have to travel from Virginia to attend. Nor does it really help Chicago fans coming in either as BWI is centrally located to both cities but DC also has Dulles International as an option and better rail service through Union Station.
It is a different culture being in Baltimore than DC as well. Not just for food preferences, accents and the inability to drive a car… If Baltimore were an extension of DC sports it would be one thing but despite playing in different leagues there’s no love lost the Orioles and the Nats. Being the Nationals are a DC team who share a large portion of their fan base with the Capitals it’s hard to imagine Nats-centric fans being all too happy about having visit enemy territory in order to watch their team. Furthermore, hockey fans in Baltimore are notoriously split between the Caps and the Philadelphia Flyers who are less than 100 miles to the north. Noteworthy, it is not that different from how during the non-football years saw fans allegiances split in the Baltimore County between the Skins and the Eagles before the city regained a football franchise.
Speaking of football and stadium’s with no soul, let’s just nix the giant purple atrocity that is M&T Bank Stadium right off the top. All the reasons above about Baltimore as a location are echoed here with The Bank, plus again the Capitals share a large portion of their fan base with the Skins and there’s no love lost between the Skins and Ravens making it difficult to imagine Skins fans wanting to travel to enemy territory. Moreso though, from an aesthetics point of view, there’s just nothing redeeming about putting a team who’s home red would clash with that gawdawful purple in that split open rotting grape of a building. There’s nothing particularly special about the giant purple monstrosity other than it being located in Charm City next to Camden Yards only steps from the Harbor.
Of course, the real reason to ditch The Bank is that the Ravens are hosting the division rival Cleveland Browns at 1 PM December 28. Chances are this game will have some kind of playoff implication so there’s always the possibility the time could move later to broaden the coverage if necessary. Either way it severely cuts into the ability of the NHL to prepare the stadium and host all of the usual pomp-and-circumstance events it’s used to holding before the Winter Classic.
Ditto with Washington’s FedEx Field as the Skins will also have a 1 PM home game against the arch rival Dallas Cowboys December 28. On the off-chance either team has a decent season resulting in a game with actual playoff implications the start time of the game could be moved back by the NFL to prime time which would further cut into the NHL’s lead time in preparation.
FedEx is also one of those new fangled, personality-less stadium out in the suburbs (the kind of thing those critics seem to hate already anyhow). It’s nice and would certainly get the job done size wise and has an interesting vibe to it but it’s not a show stopper like, say, some of the other football stadiums so far have been which we’ll just mention as an aside so that the slagging of the purple bowl doesn’t come off as bad.
Playing at FedEx also would open another can of worms in that the Skins are still under a lot of fire from a minority of Native Americans who are doing everything possible to make life with the Redskins name miserable for Dan Snyder and company. The NHL and its broadcast partners likely want no part of having to tiptoe around the name, especially considering the Blackhawks are the visiting team and not immune to the cat calling for their name and logo being insensitive.
One final point of note is that although FedEx Field as the current home to the Skins is technically within the Beltway it is outside of the city limits in Landover. Landover is the former home of the Caps back when they played at the venerable Caps Centre. So, Landover hosting would not necessarily have been a bad thing, other than it’s maybe not as classy of a setting as it juts up from within it’s semi-suburban sprawl off I-95 compared to being in a bustling downtown area.
Speaking of Skins home’s as a possible host, another option thrown around by asinine sports writers was RFK Stadium which is located within DC limits along the Anacostia River. Now that’s a stadium steeped in history. It’s also a stadium who’s historical age has more than caught up to it. The NHL equivalent is easily the New York Islander’s dilapidated home at Nassau Coliseum which speaks volumes to how bad a choice it would be. The Nationals and their fans couldn’t wait to get out after three lonely seasons being stuck playing there after their relocation from Montreal. DC United fans don’t like attending home games at RFK for fear a slab of concrete might crush them on the concourse despite the team’s history of success. Even FIFA finally gave up on it as a venue, locating all their most recent games to FedEx rather than returning to the deteriorating halls of RFK. If the idea was to level the stadium then filling it to capacity with boisterous hockey fans is probably the perfect solution but since the NHL on the whole probably doesn’t love the idea of the Caps fan base being instantly pulverized (even if a few Pittsburgh Penguins fans might) RFK is obviously off the table since it’s a dump. Don’t tell that to Wysh over at Yahoo though, he still thinks RFK is some kind of inspired idea.
While we’re on football there’s also Capital One Field at Byrd Stadium, The University of Maryland at College Park. Home of the Terps football and lacrosse teams the 51,000+ capacity multi-use stadium is situated inside the Capital Beltway no further than FedEx field is from downtown and currently has no events listed in December or early January. It’s steeped in history and retains some of it’s 1950s character even after its most recent upgrades. It’s not prescient setting considering the use of Michigan’s stadium last year, but it’s worth nothing that’s probably going to end up being the exception, not the rule considering the Classic competes with Bowl Season. The real knock to the Byrd is that there’s really very little connection between UM and DC in general or the Caps more specifically. It would feel more, or less, like the game was placed there because there wasn’t anywhere else for it.
Of course, the League could have opted to do something exceedingly unique and special and held the game at the National Mall on a frozen Reflecting Pool. Staging the event could have been a logistical nightmare. Although it’s true the Mall has held concerts, rallies, speeches and other events easily exceeding 750,000 they rarely required more than a stage with a sound system in front of an enormous general admission area. This would require building the frozen rink and some kind of organized viewing area and security in-and-out to delineate ticket holders from general tourists (assuming the National Parks Service would even allow it to be that kind of paid event) among other things. The cost may have also been prohibitive as well because it would definitely have fallen on the league to provide nearly everything for the event including any post-game restoration to the mall since it’s unlikely an austerity driven Federal Government would have been willing to kick in anything to help put on such a monumental show. This is one of those venue options that sounds so amazing on the surface only to leave you with a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach when you actually get into any of the details.
Which then leaves a less-than inspiring list of other options the NHL could have explored, but probably didn’t.
Hershey, Pennsylvania. The positive of this choice is it is the home to the legendary Hershey Bears which are the AHL affiliate of the Caps. Much of the current Caps team came up via the Bears (as has been discussed on this blog ad nausea) so for the players it would be a bit of a homecoming. Hershey is a touristy, family friendly town with an almost surreal nature to it and would have solved for that lack of character being thrown around. It’s 130 miles, about 2 and a half hours, from the DC metro area. If you were willing to consider Baltimore which has no ties to the Capitals in going outside of DC to hold the event, than the distance to Hershey isn’t really prohibitive. It’s also an easy trip for Chicago fans who can fly into Harrisburg on a quick 1 hour non-stop flight. Of course, the downside is it is Hershey and not DC for starters. It might attract as many disruptive Philly and Pittsburgh fans as anything else. And, there’s not a clear cut space to actually put the rink and stands.
Annapolis, MD at Navy-Marine Corps. Stadium. Suffers the same problem as Baltimore in terms of distance and lack of a DC identity as well as what the two NFL stadiums have problems with, which is an existing event, in this case Saturday, 27 December, hosting the Military Bowl – ACC vs. The American. No need to complain further knowing all that.
And, of course some of the other options just aren’t useful.
For example, considering college sports there’s a lack of football teams in the area to use the stadiums. American, the George Washington University, George Mason, UDC don’t have teams while Georgetown’s Multi-sport Field, William H. Greene Stadium at Howard University, Cardinal Stadium at Catholic University of America all have caps under well 10,000 making them entirely too small, mostly because they aren’t Division I quality teams. Similar problems occur when exploring either soccer, baseball or lacrosse fields at each of these schools as well. Expanding into Southern Maryland or Northeastern Virginia does nothing to solve the problem as none have anything close to the size venue necessary and going any further would simply bring back up the complex “but it’s not in DC” problem already covered.
Minor League Baseball suffers much the same fate as the biggest is the AA Bowie Baysox Prince George’s Stadium which caps out at 10,000 and is hardly DC Metro, while smaller venues like the Woodbridge Nationals’ G. Richard Pfitzner Stadium, Fredrick Keys’ Harry Grove Stadium, Hagerstown Suns’ Municipal Stadium, Delmarva Shorebirds’ Arthur W. Perdue Stadium, Southern Maryland Blue Crabs’ Regency Furniture Stadium, Aberdeen IronBirds’ Ripken Stadium and others all fall short.
Which leaves us with Nationals Park
The baseball stadium, home to Major League Baseball’s National League first place Washington Nationals (that’ a lot of Nationals in one sentence!). The Nats share a fan base with the Caps and Nats Park is located along the Anacostia River in the Navy Yard neighborhood of Washington, DC a short 10 minutes away from the Verizon Center where the Caps usually play and is just across the river from the Caps training facility, the Kettler Capitals Iceplex in Arlington, VA
Built in 2006 it is a newer stadium that hasn’t hosted the range of events that either other venues of past NHL outdoor games or other DC area venues have. However, the lack of historical significance shouldn’t be a reason to not hold what should become historic events there. At one point the same could have been said of every venue. It’s in holding such events they gained the significance they have and furthermore, on the off chance the Nationals were to win the National League Pennant and host games for the World Series there the Park would instantly have the recognition some writers are pining for.
The asthetic is not much different from any other ballpark in that it is fairly generic. To knock it is to knock not only more than half of the MLB parks that it looks and feels like but it really isn’t that much different than what’s become of much of the NHL’s own recent arena rebuilds which rarely see designers stray from the predictable to produce anything noteworthy. If unique were a prerequisite for hosting the Winter Classic, or any important game, there would be very few opportunities to be had and honestly, even the cavernous new Yankee Stadium could fall into that boring mantra if not for the fact that it is the most successful franchise in history’s namesake making it even remotely unique.
What makes Nationals Park special are the fans who support it and the Washington Capitals home fans will certainly give the place character when they descend upon it.
Speaking of the fans, with a regular configuration cap of 41,418 and over 46,000 including standing room it’s plenty big for all of them even if it is on the smaller side. It’s certainly a knock on holding it there that it won’t match the big numbers previously put up, but that’s rarely what the critics point out. Well, that’s still nearly 50,000 fans who will be rocking the red for their home team and display the same kind of gusto and representative character that other home teams have been able to produce and that’s what is most important. It’s about the hosting franchise putting their fans on display.
And, to that end the showcase is on the city and it’s fans first and foremost which is why the league has all the pomp and circumstance before the big game in the host city. Taking that away from Washington DC would be disrespectful to the Capitals and their fans who call the DC metro area their home. If Baltimore or any other regional city were indeed a better host why are the Capitals remaining in DC in the first place? Under the guise of having it in another regional town wouldn’t it make sense for that to be the new Caps home since it’s a better hockey spot? Well, since the Caps obviously aren’t moving to a different metropolitan area in the same geographical region anytime soon, let’s just put this talk of Baltimore, or any place else to bed and be exciting that a thriving area of DC will be hosting a huge event like the Winter Classic in front of some of the most durable hockey fans in the world!