As snow fell in Ann Arbor, 105,491 fans packed Michigan Stadium to experience the spectacle that was the 2014 Winter Classic between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings.
Two years in the making, the New Year’s Day NHL showcase lived up to the immense hype produced by those franchises and that venue.
"You’re talking about ‘The Big House’ and you’re talking about the Red Wings and you’re talking about the Leafs being in there, the first Canadian team to be in the Winter Classic," NHL chief operating officer John Collins said. "In probably as many games as we do in the future, everybody will still say that’s the grand daddy. That’s how good it was."
So good, perhaps, that this year’s Winter Classic between the Washington Capitals and Chicago Blackhawks lacks league-wide buzz. For the first time, the crown jewel of the regular season isn’t a matchup of long-time rivals. And it’s at seven-year-old Nationals Park, not a historic stadium that attracts extra attention.
"I’m sure if you ask the Washington Capitals, there’s probably more of a buzz there because it’s in Washington and not in Chicago," Blackhawks defenceman Brent Seabrook told the Chicago Sun-Times. "All the fanfare around it, we don’t get to see that here."
This will be the seventh Winter Classic since the tradition began in Buffalo in 2008. According to NBC play-by-play broadcaster Mike Emrick, there have been 110 outdoor games since at various levels and in many countries, from Mexico to Russia.
This one is a chance for the NHL to shine the spotlight on Alex Ovechkin and the city of Washington, which has experienced a rejuvenation as a hockey town with the "Rock the Red" era Capitals, who have made the playoffs in seven of the past eight years.
"The heartening thing is, too, is this is a second surge," Emrick said on a conference call. "Having a star to build around is an enormous thing and you can have a pretty solid team around him, too, but people like somebody that’s going to bring you out of their seats. I don’t know since Gordie Howe if we had anyone that was a big scorer and also was a hammer shot type of guy when it came to hitting other opponents like we have with this guy."
No. 8 jerseys are plentiful around Verizon Center on game nights. Collins recalled Al Michaels — the same broadcaster who coined "Do You Believe in Miracles?" during the United States’ gold-medal run at the 1980 Olympics — saying a few years ago that he saw more Capitals sweaters walking around the city than he did Redskins NFL jerseys.
"Really from that moment on, we’ve been talking about how do we take advantage of that opportunity, how do we reward the market, how do we give the Caps the opportunity to take centre stage," Collins said. "The club deserves it and the fan base deserves it."
If the NHL has followed any pattern with the Winter Classic, it’s that the road team should expect to host one sooner rather than later. The only exception to that is the New York Rangers, who hosted two outdoor Stadium Series games at Yankee Stadium last year instead of getting the Winter Classic.
The Capitals visited the Pittsburgh Penguins at Heinz Field in 2011, a game infamous for being moved to nighttime because of rain and for the concussion Sidney Crosby suffered on a hit from David Steckel. Ever since, Capitals owner Ted Leonsis and the organization have been waiting for their Winter Classic.
"It’s sort of the payback, there was that thought," Capitals president Dick Patrick said. "I think there had to be a little bit of a time gap between them. We’re really excited."
Counting two games of the 1998 Stanley Cup final, this will be just the third time a signature NHL event will take place in the Washington area. The other was the 1982 all-star game at Capital Centre in suburban Landover, Md.
The Capitals are celebrating their 40th anniversary this season.
Call it the Ovechkin effect, or whatever you’d like, but there has been a boom in kids playing hockey in Washington, Virginia and Maryland since the Capitals selected the Russian winger first overall in 2004.
"One thing that blows me away is the amount of youth hockey that’s being played in Virginia, in Washington, D.C., in the Baltimore area. It’s mind boggling," NBC analyst and former NHL coach and executive Pierre McGuire said. "And the calibre of player that’s coming out of there is really high end and I think the reason why is grass roots development of hockey that was forged by the Washington Capitals and their commitment to the area."
Despite seven playoff appearances, these Capitals, led by Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green, haven’t made it past the second round. That means they haven’t been in the national television spotlight beyond some marquee regular-season games against the Penguins, Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers.
But Collins considers the work-in-progress aspect of the Capitals an interesting part of the league storyline. The team has a new general manager in Brian McLellan and a new coach in Barry Trotz this season.
"I think what’s unique is the Capitals are an interesting story: a team that clearly admits that they haven’t fulfilled the potential of where they see themselves, and they’re in the process of reinventing themselves again with some real star players," Collins said. "It’s interesting to see what they’re doing now and how much it’s changed and what they’re trying to accomplish as a team."
The Blackhawks, while not a rival, bring some national interest. Chicago has experienced a similar revitalization as a hockey market with Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, two Stanley Cups in the past five years and the highest attendance in the NHL.
Viewers of "Road to the NHL Winter Classic" on EPIX (which has taken over for HBO) have gotten a chance to see the Blackhawks behind the scenes.
"They’ve got so many stars," Collins said. "It’s like a rock-and-roll band on tour."
The Winter Classic is one of just two outdoor games on the NHL schedule in 2014-15, joined by the Stadium Series matchup between the San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings on Feb. 21 in Santa Clara, Calif. There were six total last season, headlined by Maple Leafs-Red Wings on Jan. 1.
Commissioner Gary Bettman expects there to be more than two but fewer than six outdoor games next season. Early speculation is that the Boston Bruins could host the Montreal Canadiens, potentially at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., for the Winter Classic, with Winnipeg, Denver and Minneapolis the favourites to land the others.