Washington wins on and off the ice at 2015 NHL Winter Classic: 'Great theater, great drama'

Nicholas J. Cotsonika

WASHINGTON — In Chicago, they will remember the call and the bitterness. In Washington, they will remember the goal and the celebration.

And the sound.

Late in the third period Thursday, Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews went off for hooking. Even from the last row of Nationals Park, it looked like a make-up call for a questionable penalty on the Capitals a couple of minutes earlier.

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The stage was set. With 42,832 fans crammed in a baseball stadium and the clock counting down on the Winter Classic, the NHL’s annual outdoor showcase, the game was tied and the Capitals were going on the power play.

The Capitals celebrate after beating the Blackhawks in the 2015 Winter Classic at Nationals Park. (USA Today)
The Capitals celebrate after beating the Blackhawks in the 2015 Winter Classic at Nationals Park. (USA Today)

About a minute later, Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin skated into the left circle. Blackhawks winger Brandon Saad broke his stick with a slash. Ovechkin threw up his arms. His stick fragments went flying. The puck skidded backward in traffic. Amid the confusion, Capitals winger Troy Brouwer, a former Blackhawk, pounced and whirled and fired.

The puck slipped past the left side of Blackhawks goaltender Corey Crawford with just 12.9 seconds left in regulation, and the Capitals were going to win, 3-2. Brouwer pumped his fists. Ovechkin leapt into a pile of teammates. Fans threw keepsake seat cushions into the air as if they were mortarboards and this were graduation day.

The sound was not like it usually is at Verizon Center or any other arena. It wasn’t louder. It was lower.

“How do I explain it?” said Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner. “It’s like a …”

He paused, searching for the right words.

“It’s like a deep rumble almost,” he said. “It was a little bit deeper. It was pretty special.”

* * * * *

Yes, the novelty has worn off outdoor hockey. This was the seventh Winter Classic and the 14th NHL stadium game. Yes, the buzz was not as big for this event as it has been for others. But that’s on a national level.

There was no lack of novelty or buzz on a local level. We've been there and done that, but we haven't been here to do this. This was the first stadium game the Capitals have hosted, and this was the celebration of hockey in Washington it was supposed to be.

You had to be here. When you woke up on New Year’s morning, hockey was on the front page of the Washington Post, above the fold. When you took the Metro to the Navy Yard stop near Nationals Park, every car was chock full of hockey fans. When you stepped onto the street, you were greeted by scalpers – scalpers trying to buy tickets that they could turn around and sell. One said he was looking for tickets under $300. He hadn’t found any. Online, the cheapest was $345.

The teams line up for the national anthem in front of a model of the U.S. Capitol. (AP)
The teams line up for the national anthem in front of a model of the U.S. Capitol. (AP)

The Spectator Plaza was packed with fans listening to music, shooting pucks at targets, eating, drinking and spending. The merchandise stands had long lines of fans willing to pay $180 for Capitals Winter Classic sweaters and $30 for Capitals Winter Classic toques and more money for more stuff. It seemed everyone had to have a Winter Classic something.

Capitals owner Ted Leonsis helped make this a thriving hockey market, and he pushed hard to host the Winter Classic. As he walked on the field before the game, a mother and daughter were in the first row, taking pictures.

“They had their arms around each other, and they just had the biggest smiles on their faces,” Leonsis said. “I just stopped, and I looked at them. One of the ladies blew me a kiss. I mean, those are the kind of moments you want to capture. You want to make lifelong memories.”

The biggest problem was, of all things, the sun. It was a beautiful day, not a cloud in the sky, 43 degrees Fahrenheit, and that beat the alternative. (The weekend forecast calls for rain. The high Sunday is 64 degrees Fahrenheit. The NHL got lucky, frankly.) But the sun created glare, and that created a dilemma. Push back the 1:30 p.m. faceoff, make the fans wait and risk running into the first U.S. college football playoff and hurting TV ratings? Or deal with it and start on time?

NHL officials spoke to NHL Players’ Association officials. They talked to the coaches. They talked to the players. Not everyone agreed with the decision – Blackhawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson called it “dangerous” – but Toews, Ovechkin and Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom met during warm-ups and gave a thumbs-up. The teams would switch ends halfway through the first period to keep it fair. After that, the shadows would creep across the rink, and the sun would be off the ice.

“It was a cool moment,” said NHL chief operating officer John Collins. “I’m watching them, saying, ‘This is like kids on a pond choosing up sides. What are the rules?’ ”

On schedule, Billy Idol performed. The players walked out in centerfield next to a model of the U.S. Capitol. They skated down a mock reflecting pool, as if they were playing on the National Mall as dreamers had envisioned, and they lined up for the U.S. national anthem. Fireworks went off. Fighter jets roared overhead.

“You kind of just smirked to yourself and realized how lucky you were to be part of it,” said Capitals veteran Brooks Laich. “And then once the puck drops, now it’s go time. Now you want to get the results so you can really enjoy it.”

* * * * *

The ice received mixed reviews. Some said it was bumpy. Some said it was hard. Some said it was perfect, at least after the glare went away. The conditions helped lead to at least one goal, when Blackhawks winger Patrick Sharp fired a point shot on a power play that went through sun and shadow and traffic. Alzner wore sunglasses. Others wore tinted visors and eyeblack.

Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin celebrates scoring a goal in the first period of the 2015 Winter Classic. (AP)
Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin celebrates scoring a goal in the first period of the 2015 Winter Classic. (AP)

But for the most part, the quality of play was as high as it would have been indoors, while the spectacle was as surreal as it always is outdoors. The Capitals took a 2-0 lead. Eric Fehr, Mr. January, added a goal to the two he scored in the 2011 Winter Classic. Ovechkin scored and hit two posts. The Blackhawks came back, tied it and dominated for a time, but the Capitals didn’t crumble, killing a 5-on-3 disadvantage late in the second and pulling it out in the end.

“It sounds cheesy, but you feel like a kid again,” said Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen. “You feel the wind in your face again. The ice is kind of cracking and popping as you skate over it. The sun is in your eyes. All those little things, it’s kind of cool, really. Just a really cool experience. And it feels even better to win.”

Leonsis said the event matched his vision.

“I don’t want to make this more than it is,” he said. “I mean, I’m hoping that we can continue to be a franchise that can accomplish bigger things than winning the Winter Classic. But it does feel good to have the league believe in us, and I think this was the best Winter Classic. If you look at the quality of the game, the speed of the game, the quality of the ice … I think the weather was absolutely perfect. And to win at the buzzer basically, it makes for great theater, great drama.”

Best Winter Classic? Better than Sidney Crosby scoring the shootout winner in the snowglobe in 2008? Better than 100,000 fans packing the Big House in the snowstorm last year? That’s debatable.

Excellent Winter Classic? An event that showed off Washington as a hockey market? An event that gave people a good time and a good game and made a lot of money? An event that demonstrated the staying power of this concept? No debate.

After the game, one of the Nationals’ principal owners, Mark Lerner, came up to Collins in the basement of the stadium. Wearing a mix of Nationals, Capitals and Winter Classic gear, he raved about the event – everything from the flyover to the finish.

“It was a great day with a capital ‘G,’ ” Lerner said.

A Capital G.

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