By Pete Kertzel
PITTSBURGH – The rain finally stopped, the temperature dropped and the NHL ushered in a new era at the 2011 Winter Classic Saturday night.
Welcome to primetime, where bright lights illuminated a darkened sky for the second time in NHL history, providing a unique stage for the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins and creating a dazzling, wintry glint on the ice that belied the game-time temperature of 51.7 degrees.
“Playing under the lights only adds to the whole experience,” said 21-year-old Joe Bradley, a Louisiana State University student and Caps fan from Alexandria, Va., who got tickets to the Classic as a Christmas gift. “It’s not the same indoor feel. With the lights turned on, it’s a special feeling. It’s pretty cool.”
As special as the feeling was for the sellout crowd of 68,111 that watched from the stands and endured steady rain for half the third period, the players were equally stoked about their unexpected turn under the lights, an electric atmosphere that only enhanced an already rabid rivalry.
“It felt unbelievable,” said Eric Fehr, who scored two goals in a 3-1Washington victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins. “The first time we came out for the first period there, the fans were loud. It was everything you kind of dreamed of. It was perfect – the darkness with the lights. It was great.”
Capitals star Alex Ovechkin, who worried before the game whether his knees would be shaking on a larger-than-usual stage, was unprepared for the enormity of the evening.
“It was one of the best feelings in my life,” Ovechkin said.
Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby, playing in his second Winter Classic, thought it would be difficult to upstage the Penguins-Buffalo Sabres version in 2008 and was pleasantly surprised by the vibe.
“It’s an amazing feeling,” Crosby said. “I said the same thing in Buffalo, but it’s pretty easy to see why you see those guys so pumped up when they’re in the tunnel.”
It took a combination of fortuitous meteorological serendipity and common sense on the part of the NHL for the game to faceoff without a hitch – and in dryer, colder temperatures. At 5 p.m. on New Year’s Eve, the league made the decision to push the game back seven hours from the original 1 p.m. EST start, banking that a primetime TV slot would be enhanced by a lack of precipitation once a soggy cold front moved east and delivered a blast of cooler air. By the time the final horn sounded, temperatures had dropped into the mid-40s.
The NHL got a break when the cold front advanced more quickly than expected, affording the opportunity to tweak the ice surface constructed over a field that hosted a Carolina Panthers-Pittsburgh Steelers game only 10 days earlier.
While the outdoor rink fared well during the Dec. 31 alumni game, which featured the return of former Penguins star and now team owner Mario Lemieux, the ice surface slowly deteriorated during the teams’ practices later in the afternoon. By the time the Capitals skated, panels supporting the ice had shifted, resulting in divots that had to be covered by traffic cones.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman was relieved ice conditions held up throughout the night without a rain delay and said the nighttime Classic provided an unforeseen can-you-top-this moment for the league.
“This is reality hockey when you take it outdoors” Bettman said. “Somebody on one of the clubs was telling me that as they approached the stadium and saw the lights, it was just a spectacular sight. They got chills down their spine.”
Outside Heinz Field, Pens fan Scott Smith, a 26-year-old construction company program manager from Lower Burrell, Pa., who now lives in Capitals country, passed the afternoon before the puck dropped by playing street hockey next to the first tailgating space on the stadium’s east side. He paid $150 for lower deck tickets, parlaying his knowledge of craigslist into a thrifty last-minute purchase. His friends arrived at 2 p.m. to set up their mammoth tailgate.
Washington fan Katherine Wisniewski, a 27-year-old EEG technician at Georgetown University Hospital who lives in the Baltimore suburb of Edgemere, paid a premium price: $300 for her ducats. The time change added to her total bill for the weekend, which expanded to include an unexpected overnight stay in Monroeville, a Pittsburgh suburb, after game time was changed. She donned a Mike Green jersey and openly campaigned for an introduction to the Capitals defenseman, her favorite player.
“He’s so cute,” smiled Wisniewski, acknowledging with a whisper that she was a “hockey virgin” attending only her second game, both of them Caps-Pens clashes. “Do you think you could tell him I want to meet him and give him my phone number?”
If any animosity existed between the teams’ fans, it was hard to tell in what amounted to a hockey love-fest. During football season, a game between the hometown Steelers and a heated rival might induce alcohol-fueled fistfights and expletive-laced trash talking.
“The worst thing that happened to us was we got Silly Stringed and yelled at by a six-year-old,” Wisniewski said. “Pretty tame.”
D.C. resident Elizabeth Stewart, Bradley’s companion and a longtime NFL Washington Redskins fan, was surprised by the calm demeanor, which saw opposing fans chatting amicably over beers in parking areas.
“Football is very tense, very aggressive,” said the 31-year-old graphics editor. “Hockey is different, more of a community.”
Pittsburgh resident Greg McDonald, a 53-year-old social worker who remembers the days before hockey caught on in the confluence of three rivers, recalled a time when planning months in advance for a single game would have been unheard of. Now his hometown was, for a night, the center of the hockey universe.
“It’s like when (Pittsburgh) had the (baseball) All-Star Game a few years ago, but not quite as good as the Steelers being in the Super Bowl,” he said. “Everybody’s so excited. Pushing back the start only adds to the build-up.”
The longtime Pens fan, clad in a Classic jersey bearing Lemiuex’s name and number beneath a Steelers jacket, remembered when he paid only $9 for a seat at 'The Igloo.' And he knew what was at stake in a battle of heated rivals who, quite frankly, don’t like one another.
“It’s only two points in the standings,” McDonald said. “But the bragging rights, well, they’re invaluable.”