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A Classic Winter Afternoon

Photo Courtesy of Elizabeth Locke

Photo Courtesy of Elizabeth Locke

Eli Locke, Sentry Guest Writer

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For Americans who, for the most part, are baseball, basketball and football fans, it’s tough to understand just what playing hockey outdoors means to so many Canadians and Europeans. Making rinks in your backyard and playing shinny with the neighborhood kids until sundown is as much of a part of Canadian culture as is maple syrup. But you don’t have to be a big hockey fan, or Canadian, to appreciate and tune in to the NHL’s best idea since the lockout happened. And this year, the spectacle made its way to the nation’s capital.

In 2005, NBC Sports’ executive vice president Jon Miller could not have imagined the scene that developed on New Year’s Day ten years down the road: 42,832 fans clad in red tossing their seat cushions in the air in pure jubilation as Troy Brouwer scored the game-winning goal with only 13 seconds left in regulation. Miller’s idea for a NHL regular-season game to be held outdoors came to life first in 2008 with a picturesquely snowy contest in Buffalo, NY, in which NHL and Canadian poster-boy Sidney Crosby won the game in a shootout. Every year since then (not counting the shortened 2012-2013 season), the Winter Classic has captivated fans of all sports from Virginia to Vancouver.

The Capitals featured in the Winter Classic first in 2011, trudging through cold Pittsburgh rain to defeat their rivals, the Penguins, 3-1. Some even suggested that more Washington fans were present in Heinz Field than Pittsburgh fans. Regardless, from that moment on, diehard Washingtonian hockey fans dreamed of the day in the near future in which the Winter Classic would come to the District of Columbia. January 1, 2015 was that date.

For the Caps and their city, the Winter Classic went just about perfectly. The event was rightfully and thankfully chosen to be held at state-of-the-art Nationals Park rather than dingy RFK or far-away FedEx field. Despite reports that the game would be moved to later in the day when the rink was enclosed in shadow, crispy weather and defenseman Karl Alzner’s super-cool Oakley sunglasses fought back the sun glare and the game proceeded on time. The pre- and post-game festivities were well-executed (although the in-game performers and salutes honestly left much to be desired). Most importantly, though, the Capitals were victorious.

Eric Fehr, now unofficially known as “Mr. Outdoor Game,” scored the first goal to send Capitals fans jumping for joy throughout Nationals Park. Four years earlier, his two strikes also lifted the Caps to victory. The always electric Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin had himself a game: he scored and hit the post twice, and was buzzing, hitting, celebrating, and consistently pushing his team on as the game progressed. Playing against the team that traded him as part of a salary cap fire-sale, Troy Brouwer won the game for the Capitals with a deft sweep of his stick.

Think back to the last time you were truly, for a moment, blissfully and completely happy. Maybe you studied extra hard on a test and got a perfect score; for others, it may be seeing a long-lost friend or family member in the first time since forever. For me and the Capitals’ ever-growing fan base, that moment came with 13 seconds left in the third period on January 1, 2015 as I and my 42,803 new best friends exploded in pure joy, jumping from our red seats as the team in red roared a victorious shout in unison with #20 on the ice.

Playing hockey outdoors is incredibly special to many of our neighbors north of the border. But even casual sports fans looking on as the TV cameras panned the crowd at Nationals Park on that now-famous day can understand what it means to the team and the city it represents to participate in, host, and win the Winter Classic.

 

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A Classic Winter Afternoon