WASHINGTON, D.C. — A perfect day.
That’s how the start of 2015 will be remembered by most of the 42,832 hearty souls that gathered at Nationals Park to watch a hockey game. That’s how I’ll look back on it, too.
Even John Collins, the NHL executive behind the league’s outdoor revolution, was beaming in the aftermath of this classic Winter Classic.
“Do you know what the highlight for me is?” he said. “That people are walking out of this thing, including guys that have been to a lot of them, saying: ‘Wow, this is the best one ever.’
“That’s the reaction you want every time you do it.”
The experience was so good that the Chicago Bkackhawks could surrender a goal in the final seconds — moments after a controversial penalty was called against them — and still manage smiles on their way out of Washington.
“Just an honour to have been a part of it,” forward Ben Smith said after the 3-2 loss to the Capitals.
This was a reminder that reality occasionally exceeds expectations and proof that the Winter Classic will remain an important part of the North American sports calendar for years to come.
Here we had teams that aren’t traditional rivals and a venue that wasn’t even built when the NHL first went outdoors. And do you know what? It was still awesome.
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This particular game was years in the making. Capitals owner Ted Leonsis begged and pleaded with commissioner Gary Bettman to bring the signature event to D.C. and his persistence paid off.
If any of the players were unaware of how significant it would be, they found out early Thursday morning when the team buses pulled up to the stadium and thousands of fans were already tailgating outside more than three hours from puck drop.
The energy and excitement would only grow — aided in part by the brilliant sunshine and comfortable temperatures. If you were lucky enough to be here, chances are you were smiling.
“I was walking to do an interview this morning and there was this mother and daughter and they had their arms around each other,” said Leonsis, when asked about his personal highlight. “They just had the biggest smiles on their faces. And I just stopped and I looked at them and one of the ladies blew me a kiss.”
This wasn’t the first game played across the infield of a ballpark, but it was still unique.
The replica United States Capitol building beyond the ice surface was distinctive. The decision to have the players skate across a frozen surface made to look like the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pools during the introductions was a stroke of genius.
Then you had representatives from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps participating in the national anthem and a perfectly timed F-16 flyover and fireworks to punctuate the entire thing.
“You just wrap yourself up in the American flag and patriotism and what Washington is all about,” said Colllins.
Finally — and most importantly — there were two teams that rose to the occasion with a game you would describe as entertaining even if it was played indoors.
Ice guru Dan Craig and his staff have this down to a science now and the surface they built here allowed the players to complete long passes and push the pace.
“Today the big players were in play,” observed Capitals coach Barry Trotz.
There was Alex Ovechkin pouncing on a rebound for a jubilant goal and Marian Hossa turning a giveaway into a tic-tac-toe equalizer with Jonathan Toews and Brandon Saad.
You had Eric Fehr emerging from the shadows — literally — to score with a nice breakaway deke and Patrick Sharp taking advantage of the early-game sunlight to beat Braden Holtby from the point.
As the stakes increased, the Capitals killed off a 5-on-3 disadvantage that spanned 91 seconds and another penalty with less than five minutes to play in regulation.
That set the stage for Troy Brouwer’s walkoff home run — a desperation goal with 12.9 seconds remaining on a broken play. With Jonathan Toews serving a controversial hooking infraction, the former Blackhawk fired the puck from a distance and didn’t even see it go in.
The sellout crowd told him all he needed to know. The fans greeted the winner with a “deep rumble,” according to Caps defenceman Karl Alzner.
“It’s relief and euphoria,” he said.
There wasn’t the slightest hint that the novelty of this event had worn off. The NHL stages 1,230 regular-season games each year and none of them can match all of this.
That’s why Collins expects the league to be ringing in New Years in style with Winter Classics well into the future.
“Why not?” he said. “I don’t see any softening.”
That can’t be measured in ticket sales and TV ratings, but also the experience of the participants.
More than one Capitals player said that this was even more thrilling than their first Winter Classic game in 2011.
“And the last one had been my most memorable time playing in the NHL,” added defenceman Mike Green.
If you want even more proof, go back and watch the celebration on the winning goal.
Ovechkin nearly toppled right over his teammates on the ice. The players on the bench screamed their voices hoarse while bouncing around in unison.
“I think it was kind of like an old Capitals celebration,” said centre Nicklas Backstrom. “When we were a little younger we used to jump around.”
It’s no coincidence that it happened again here.
“It’s a celebration of our game,” explained teammate Matt Niskanen. “It sounds cheesy, but it makes you feel like a little kid again.”
There’s always going to be a magnetic appeal to something that can do that.
I’m already looking forward to the next one.