For almost as long as I’ve been interested in ice hockey I’ve been a Washington Capitals fan. Had someone warned me the experience would be as maligned as it has been at times I might have taken a different route in fandom but who knows. It’s where I am now and I rock the red about as proud as they come having rocked the weagle before the red and the old stick-and-stars version of them before that.
The last Caps game I attended was against the Devils on Devs home ice at the Rock in Newark. For years living in North Jersey the only games I saw were Caps-Devils games and not just because of proximity either. My sister and several friends are legit Devils fans and don’t mind attending with me rooting for the other team mostly because I’m not a Rangers fan which helped. And, I can wear my old school Caps gear to the tilts and people seem to love it. They assume, and not wrongly so, that I don the old sweater due to an affinity for their beloved Scott Stevens who skated nearly half his career as a Cap. It’s much better than wearing Derek Boogard or Sean Avery Rags Jerseys which would be just picking a fight with an otherwise docile NJ crowd.
The last home game of the Caps I attended though was so long ago they were still playing in Landover, MD. To say it’s been a while since I supported them on home ice would be somewhat of an understatement.
It finally happened though and it was worth every minute of the wait to witness them outdoors as they hosted the Winter Classic on New Year’s Day.I cannot thank my sister enough for helping score the tickets or her and her husband for their hospitality during my trip down for the game.
When the game was announced a while back there was a collective moan from the hockey community. Both the Caps and the Hawks were repeat performers for the big day, even though it would be the first inter-conference matchup. The benefit is both teams are known quantities with very similar attributes for guaranteeing some level of success: Strong TV ratings plus good streaming numbers for games; High attendance both home and away; marque players who are individual stories. This despite the teams themselves being on opposite ends of the map:
The Hawks are an original six stalwart with a long, albeit storied history. Their recent legacy is that of a venerable powerhouse whose multiple Stanley Cup wins and a narrow defeat at the hands of their rival Kings at playing for it again last season is punctuated by the personal accomplishments of they’re core players including Captain Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith and others. They’re more than celebrated in the league and could be considered an all too predictable selection.
On the other side could be the underdog… The Caps who were a 1970s expansion franchise that nearly collapsed on inception. They are zero for one in Stanely Cup attempts over the last 40 years and didn’t even make it to the play offs last year. Despite the fundamental lack of a cohesive franchise legacy they featured some pretty amazing talent over the years, from the early days with Yvon Labre to Langway-Stevens-Murphy-Gartner era to the Bondra-Gonchar-Hunter-Kolzig era while names like Ciccarelli, Iafrate, Oates, Jagr having passed through to the Ovechkin-Backstrom-Green era we’re currently engrossed in the Caps at least aren’t devoid of some notoriety, particularly with that guy named Ovechkin.
Thus, when the game was announced for Nationals Park the moan became a grunt. A team with little legacy hosting the game in a park with no history deflated the concept of the Classic for even more fans, regardless of the District of Columbia’s beautiful backdrop and the many, many story lines that could be crafted about the parallels in several of the District’s teams. Probably would be different if the Hawks were hosting at Wrigley but that’s not how it went down.
Throw in Epix producing the lead in show rather than HBO it seemed to be a final hype killer for what previously was already a perceived drop off from last year’s uber-highlight Classic the Red Wings hosted.
As expected, the televised version of the game put up fantastic numbers in the local markets but nationally was the lowest performing Classic thus far eking out a 2.3 rating on a 4 share (a shade less than the Philadelphia hosted game in 2012 but overall ratings for the Classic, and all the outdoor games in general, are all over the map). And, as expected it sold out in near record time. The secondary market for tickets was expensive boasting the highest resale numbers of any classic so far and tickets remained scares with fewer than 100 posted the day before, the lowest number since the inaugural year.
As for the matchup, that went about as you’d expect it as well. Two dynamic, puck possession teams took a tie nearly to the final buzzer playing fairly evenly matched and surprisingly uptempo hockey in the elements. Big names shone. Grinders made the difference. The refs and the sun glare participated inopportunely as well.
Observations from section 141:
The game was everything I wanted it to be: particularly the win in regulation garnering two points in the standings. The two points vaulted us back into playoff position and despite having games-in-hand the tiebreakers would lean in the Caps favor and the advanced metrics seem to point to greater continued success despite the Rags white hot streak.
And, Ovechkin once again performed on the big stage taking the first star on a goal, an assist, four SOG on seven attempts including two clankers off the posts and four hits. He took on the leadership role with a long discussion with the refs during the second period along with setting the tone on the ice, completely owning it every stride he took.
But most so, it was a rare opportunity for DC on a national stage since the pre-Snyder days of the ‘Skins in the late 80s-early 90s to shine as a sporting home.
Most Lasting Memory
The vast majority of the section I was in was Capitals fans. A few odds and ends Jerseys speckled the red including the Rangers fan next to me and a handful of Hawks away whites. One row in front and a few seats over from where I was there was a family of Blackhawks fans, the youngest of which was a sprite little eight year-or so-old. While the Caps chants rose and ebbed throughout the first period, this little guy was full on Chicago. He answered back on nearly every Caps chant one with a reply of his own. He raised many of his own as well, and when Caps fans starting echoing his with Caps replies he took it in stride by increasing his volume.
Had he kept that attitude all game I would have loved him more, but alas, he didn’t and his parents made no attempt to stop him as he turned to heckle fans behind him as the game wore on. Doing the nanny-nanny-poo-poo thing is a little kids version of flipping someone the bird and after a couple of times watching that it started to sully my opinion of the kid. Hopefully, he doesn’t become a douche as he gets older and lets go of that kind of taunting attitude. Too many games I’ve seen people engage in rightous fisticuffs over less.
However, looking back, those opening moments seeing is youthful exuberance while in enemy territory was pretty amazing and reminded me why I love being a fan myself.
The Best (and worst) Entertainment:
Apart from the game itself??
The United States Army choir performing. Their rendition of the National Anthem and other contributions during the game were simply inspiring. Including regular singers Bob McDonald and Caleb Green was a nice touch honoring the Vz Center tradition. The harmonies were beautiful against a simple, straight forward arrangement making it the absolute perfect departure for the classless gusto most soloists put into their contrived, over-the-top versions that are done on a national stage.
Which, speaking of, the worse performance was the inclusion of Lee Greenwood whining about how God blessed the USA or something. While the psuedo-patriotism might be attractive to some what I really see is the same thing I always have from Greenwood over the last nearly decade and a half: cash grab. His wonky approach to tying Christianity (or some type of God-faith vibe) into what it means to be a (modern) “American” along with his over reliance on a single song for his own (continued) fame never quite sat well with me. Unlike Woody Guthrie’s penning of the beautiful “This Land is Your Land” as one small part of his heritage legacy, Greenwood sells his song like it’s straight of of an old K-Mart Blue Light Special and the positioning of the performance at the game felt overtly commercial and took away from my respect for the patriotic vibe rather than supporting it organically. It was so bad that even blaring a caste recording of Kate Smith doing Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” would feel less heartless and contrived to be honest.
The Best Goal
Thankfully, there was no worst goal, so lets hop right to it:
Fehr in the first period becoming the all time leader for outdoor game goals. It was a beautiful breakaway moment for F16 when he slid between defenders and took on Crawford with a fantastic forehand deek before depositing it in the open net behind the sprawling goalie. It set a tone not just for the hometown crowd but for how the game was going to be played.
Honorable mention goes to the Patrick Kane’s goal on the power play as the first peroid wound down coming off an assist by Jon Toews making the Hawks captain the all time points leader for outdoor games. It was a slick one timer off a good setup by Duncan which might go otherwise unnoticed as routine for a team so adept at that play if not for Toews historical contribution.
Best Goal Celebration
And again, there was no worst so let’s again skate right to it:
TBro’s game winning goal which could have been honorable mention for how it was scored anyhow. Troy Brower picked up the lose puck on the delayed penalty. With everyone seemingly reacting to Ovi’s stick shattering TFB fired hard and found the seam effectively closing out the game in the dying moments of regulation and sealing the win. Before the goal horn even finished sounding the sky was filled with commemorative seat cushions and towels of celebrating Caps fans. Nats stadium literally shook from the response. This was about the entire experience of the goal being scored more than an individual player response or anything like that.
Sure, Ovi celebrating his goal with the Eagle’s wings move was cool and all, but you kind of almost half expect that from him at this point. That’s how the Great 8 rolls. As excited as fans were to have the game go up 2-0 it paled in comparison to winning so dramatically.
Worst in game moment
IF the teams made goal scoring awesome you know there had to be something to offset it and that was the officials. When I heard who the officiating crew was I was in shock and awe the league decided to go that way. They are aweful as individuals and don’t have a lot of time together meaning they were even more inept as a team.
While there were many, many bad calls, including the “interference” on Crawford by Wilson during what was really just incidental contact outside of the goalie crease and some very good acting by the goalie it wasn’t the worst moment. Neither were the many, many missed calls like Johansson being dragged down at center ice (by Oduya who seems to have lost a step in his game with his recent rash of interference penalties) in front of the official midway through the second and the slew foot by Shaw in the third.
Nope, there was one call that stood above them all:
That was the soft call against Toews at the end of the game setting up the Capitals power play score. While I would disagree with Hawks fans that say the stripes “gave” the game away ** , it was so ill timed of a soft call for hooking that it did undercut what was a fascinating game overall by both teams by making the call the story rather than the rest of the game. Was Toews interfering with the progress of the play? Yeah, definitely. Was it actually hooking? Maybe not really from most of the angles the replays showed. Even if it was though, 90% of the time it’s also probably not a whistle. Perhaps it was a mental compensation for the missed penalty moments before against the Hawks. Perhaps it looked much more like a legit hook from the angle. We don’t know but it ended up being an unfortunately controversial call.
** And, to address this matter – the Hawks were one for six on the power play including a dismal 5 on 3 where they didn’t register a single shot on goal. This meant they squandered their advantages. When accounting only for 5-aside play, the Hawks were out Corsi’d and the only leveling effect in the overall game numbers came because they were granted all those unimpeded power plays, meaning they could have still done more while on evens. Considering they spent under four minutes on the penalty kill before the late call it means they had every opportunity to control their own destiny and failed to. Add into this Ovi beat Crawford twice and rang them off the posts in a bit of good fortune for the Hawks and the difference maker wasn’t that single call by the refs but in the Hawks overall play long before the whistle blew.
Hits and Misses
Pretty much the hit goes to Brooks Orpik. Seriously, one game ago the dude is writing on the ice with a knee injury and the next he is on the ice leveling everyone in his path. He laid out a crusher on the blue line at one point. I don’t know who it was against but it was the kind of crunch you felt in the stands. The whole game hand some bone crunchers on both teams, to be sure, but having that big presence on the blue line is what we got Oprik for and he delivered robustly. Three on the books during a team leading 24:44 on the ice.
Honorable mention goes to our young pugelist Tom Wilson. While I don’t advocate him dropping the gloves as often as he has, he is defending dad (Backes) and Ovi during his time on the top line and filling a position grinders Chis Clark and Mike Knuble previously held and is way too long abandoned by the team in creating a distraction down low. Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, his fisticuffs was against notable agitator Carcillo. Taking Carcy off the ice early helped set a tone much like F16’s goal and gave a burst of energy to the team, the fans and the game itself.
The miss would have to be the blown second period by the Caps topped off by John Carlson’s high-sticking penalty while Willy was boxed on the bogus interference call. I am sure Hawks fans were happy with the outcome in both net score and the advanced metrics for a good portion of the second as the Caps struggled with their flow during the game but it was that dual penalty situation that really blew out the period for both teams. Sure, the Caps pulled off a perfect 1:30 two man down kill but the essential cross check to the shoulders Carly took was so unnecessary of a hit it’s mind boggling. I might have come to expect that from the ice cheetah Chimera’s poorly timed penalties from what appears, at face value, to be a slower step these days but not from Team USA’s other half in Carly.
Coolest and least appealing visual
In a venue of exceedingly cool visuals including a red star framing the rink inspired by the Caps logo, Holtby’s throwback pads and Kolzig influenced lid as well as both team’s retro styled uniforms, the F-16 flyover and other patriotic references it was really the back of the rink behind the benches that deserved the biggest spotlight. The players entered the stadium from a miniature Capital Building and across a replica Reflecting Pool which was just stunning. Pre-game the reflecting pools were used for pee-wee scrimmages and other ceremonial stuff, but it really was the player introductions on them that was just really dramatic to watch as they skated out to the stadium announcements.
Conversely, the pyrotechnics used during the intermissions were unnecessary. Maybe it was the vantage point I was at but they added nothing to what were already very contrived entertainment, placed there out of cliche’d rigor rather than adding to the overall spectral. If you’re going to shoot off fireworks for a premier event make them memorable for the right reasons.
Best & Worst fan experience
Coming from the tri-state area I am used to high security for, well, everything, and since it’s done so routinely there’s also a bit of an attitude that goes along with the experience from everyone involved in it. Arriving in DC was nothing of the sort. There were fairly polite people all along the route from the Metro to the Stadium guiding fans along and when we got there getting through security was an absolute breeze. Sure, there were people who chose to ignore the online postings, the signage at the stadium, the ushers verbal instructions and the cues from the people in front of them in line who held things up but for the most part the experience was smooth, quick and painless while still feeling about as thorough as anything you get in NYC.
Of course, once you got in, if you didn’t get to the concessions early the whole experience was reverse. It was obvious at times this was a baseball stadium crew handing things because they were completely unprepared for what it means to have no business during the game and all of it in the intermissions. I heard rumor to similar problems at the Philadelphia Classic as well, but not being there I have no real comparison. This didn’t affect me at all because I never hit the concessions during any game anyhow. If it haven’t bought it before the first pitch / puck dropping and it hasn’t found it’s way to me by a travelling salesman in my section I don’t need it. Because of the long lines it meant people were still trying to shuffle into their seats after the next period began longer than at a normal game. Again, I was fortunate enough it never disrupted my viewing but it didn’t go unnoticed by me that it was occurring.