BOSTON – If you close your eyes and ignore the calendar, sitting here in the hallowed bleachers, the crisp thwacks of sticks connecting clean with pucks sound an awful lot like batting practice.
But it’s not Ted Williams or Bill Mazeroski plying their trade in the snappish air of this baseball cathedral, beneath the long shadow of the Green Monster.
It’s Sidney Crosby and Patrice Bergeron cutting strides up centre ice, along the baseline where Red Sox sprint from second to third.
It’s Evgeni Malkin and Brad Marchand walking out of the dugouts, eye black smeared on their cheekbone.
Cynics might argue that the National Hockey League’s Winter Classic has lost its lustre, that the annual New Year’s outdoor matinee has grown tired. And, hey, didn’t they already do one at Fenway Park?
“It’s my fifth (outdoor) game, and I’m still looking forward to tomorrow,” Bergeron said Sunday, following the Boston Bruins family skate.
For the players, the coaches, and the fans filing into the bleachers for Monday’s tilt between the Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins, the Winter Classic feels as special as ever.
It’s a spectacle. It’s a stunt. It’s a made-for-TV ratings pitch, bumped to Jan. 2 in 2023, so as to not butt heads with the channel hog that is NFL Sunday.
But it’s also a heckuva time in a wonderful setting.
And it does mean something to those involved.
Take Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan, who grew up a shortstop and a Sox junkie in Marshfield, Massachusetts, thanks to his father George, who passed away in 2018.
“I don’t know that there was a bigger Red Sox fan than him. Maybe one of my uncles,” Sullivan says. “But we grew up just idolizing the Red Sox, and we had the privilege to usually go to one game a year when we were kids, in Fenway. I remember those events like they were yesterday. So, I still get chills when I walk into Fenway Park, when I take my kids now to this day.”
Pond hockey. Warm afternoons at the ballpark. Sullivan feels home here, and the hard-driving bench boss is not afraid to get a little sentimental.
“It’s interesting because I think sports has a unique ability to bring people together, and families together, and they rally around their respective teams. You live and die with your teams,” Sullivan continues.
“This, for me, is kind of a culmination of that with baseball and hockey — two of the loves in my family’s life. So, to be able to experience this at Fenway Park is something special.”
Take the Bruins who doffed scally caps or the Penguins who played some whiffle ball Sunday to warm up before practice.
Take charismatic Bruins superstar David Pastrnak, who worked with Bauer to design a unique Fenway-inspired stick and skates for the occasion, each stamped with David Ortiz logo.
“Bring me some luck,” Pastrnak says. “Hopefully I can score a couple of home runs into the net.”
Or take Sidney Crosby, who scored the snow-globe shootout winner 15 years ago at the original Winter Classic inside Buffalo’s Ralph Wilson Stadium.
“When we played the first one in 2008, I didn’t know if I’d ever play in another one,” Crosby says, after peeling off his throwback P sweater. “To see how they how they’ve grown and to be a venue like this, it’s definitely something that everybody’s really got excited for.
“You dream of making the NHL. You don’t necessarily think this is something that comes with it.”
Certainly not when a young Crosby — aged nine or 10, he figures — attended his first-ever sporting event here at this same stadium, a 10-and-a-half hour family drive from Cole Harbour. (Note: His memory of the game’s details might be hazy, but the sentiment is clear.)
“Red Sox against the Giants. Barry Bonds was playing for the Giants then. Dusty Baker was the manager. And Mo Vaughn hit a homerun, walk off. I think it was 4-3 game,” says Crosby, who grew up an Expos fan.
“But Boston was always a big one back home. A lot of people followed them. It’s not that far from Nova Scotia. So, it was pretty cool experience coming here at a young age.”
Puck drop is set for 2 p.m ET on Sportsnet and SN NOW. The temperature is forecasted 9°C. The sky should be sunny, and the memories lasting.
“These are unique in their own way. I think that’s the beauty of them all,” Sullivan says. “This one here, for me, might top them all.
“From a pure hockey fan standpoint, it would be hard not to be excited about an event like this. As coaches, we get the privilege to watch this up close and personal. And I don’t take one second of it for granted.”