Winter Classic sign of how far Capitals have come

The Washington Capitals have come a long way in recent years from barely able to sell a section to selling out a baseball field. And they have Alex Ovechkin and owner Ted Leonsis to thanks.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — There is a model of the Capitol dome out in centre field and giant swaths of fake snow everywhere you look and an ice rink stretched from first to third base at Nationals Park.

There is a city that was once cool on hockey, but has since come to embrace the Washington Capitals to such a degree that it compelled the NHL to bring its signature event to the American capital.

Watch Episode 4 of Road To the Winter Classic, Jan. 6 at 7 p.m. ET on Sportsnet Ontario. MORE: Winter Classic Live

There will be national television audiences in two countries and more than 40,000 fans in the seats and a buzz in the air on the first day of 2015.

And, if you’re willing to extrapolate the chain of events that brought us to the latest Winter Classic, there would have been none of this without Alex Ovechkin.

“He’s sort of been the catalyst for how far the organization and the team has come,” teammate Mike Green said Tuesday. “Obviously it’s a team game, but he’s a big part of the NHL and that’s what’s important.”

The eighth iteration of the NHL’s Jan. 1 outdoor game is being derided in some circles for lacking hype. A Washington-Chicago matchup can’t be billed as a rivalry and a six-year-old ballpark won’t be called an iconic venue.

Still, there is a story here and it is one about the superstars who have helped drag a pair of organizations out of the mud and onto this big stage. As Capitals coach Barry Trotz put it: “We’ve both come from the ashes.”

While Ovechkin still longs to do what Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane have already twice accomplished with the Blackhawks — lift the Stanley Cup — his impact on the Capitals organization can’t be understated.

They were a total non-factor when he took the league by storm in 2005 and they are a positive revenue generator today. Washington was 28th in NHL attendance for Ovechkin’s first two seasons and soon cracked the top-10.

“I’m pretty happy when I look back how we started where we are right now,” he said. “It’s a great feeling and a great time.”

Brooks Laich is one of the few players with enough institutional memory to recall a time when this sort of event wouldn’t have been possible here. He played some games for the 2003-04 Capitals, which couldn’t have drawn enough fans to fill the outfield of a ballpark, let alone the entire thing.

“This might sound bad, but we used to say it’s an ‘S.O.S.’ night — sold out section,” said Laich. “That was a long time ago. I remember my parents coming to games and we were wearing the black and gold and they could sit anywhere they wanted.”

They are here again now, but will need to find the seats that correspond with their tickets for Thursday’s game.

Ovechkin also has his parents in town along with his brother and some friends. New Year’s Eve is a huge event in Russian culture and the Washington captain was beaming while talking about the meal his family will enjoy before the big game.

The only thing that might top it is the Winter Classic itself.

“They’re just going to have a great time,” said Ovechkin. “It’s almost like a football game. You go out three hours before and have hot dogs or beers and just enjoying the wait for the game to start.”

There is a maturity about Ovechkin now. He will turn 30 prior to next season and is earning all kinds of praise from inside the organization.

Even though he is lagging behind the NHL’s top goal-scorers with 17 through 36 games, Trotz sees a more committed player than the one he watched on video last season. The new Capitals coach was effusive with his praise — noting that Ovechkin is “competing” and “doesn’t get intimidated.”

“He’s buying in,” Trotz added. “He’s not perfect, but his mind is in the right area to have success.”

Others see it, too.

“Alex has won everything there is to win as an individual,” said Laich. “Your trophy case is full as an individual but ultimately players are always judged by championships … and that’s the one thing that’s missing.

“For him, the realization of that, I think is coming to the forefront.”

And so he arrives back in the sport’s spotlight cutting a different sort of figure. All of the dazzling goals and dynamic plays helped build a fan base, but a more understated game from Ovechkin seems to be required to satisfy its championship aspirations.

The Capitals believe they are making some positive strides in that direction and just completed an 8-2-3 run through December. Facing a Blackhawks team that is arguably the class of the NHL will put that theory to the test.

“We understand as a group that it’s time to move forward,” said Ovechkin. “We have to take this time, it has to be our time. That’s why you don’t think about the personal stats; you think about how to make, first, the playoffs and then you get the success in the playoffs.

“As soon as you’re going to feel the difference and see the difference you’re going to understand: ‘Yes, this is exactly what we need and this is exactly what this group of guys is missing.”‘

Laich refers to it as “unfinished business” and believes his teammates are finally ready to get over the hurdles that have tripped them up in the past.

In other words, there seems to be good reason for all of the excitement and enthusiasm expected to be on display at Nationals Park this week. The Capitals got a taste of the Winter Classic as visitors at Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field in 2011, but are viewing the opportunity to host as a sign of how far they’ve come.

“You look up and there’s a sky above you — that’s really the coolest thing,” said Laich. “Last time I don’t think I enjoyed the Winter Classic enough, I don’t think I took in enough last time. This year I’m a little more composed, a little older and really realize how lucky we are to have this game and how far the sport has come in D.C. and Maryland and Virginia.”

It’s little wonder they arrived here given the star that’s been guiding them.

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