Come hell or rain water, the NHL was going to drop the puck on its Winter Classic at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh last Saturday. This game is the league's annual moment in the sun—or in this case, after a seven-hour rain delay, under the lights—and wrinkles such as a driving rain and an ice surface that produced more wicked hops than a San Pedro de Macoris infield weren't going to spoil the winter wonder for the 68,111 on hand or the 4.65 million viewers on NBC.
Amid the hoopla, the Washington Ovechkins beat the Pittsburgh Crosbys 3--1. The teams did not need sodden-death overtime.
This was the fourth New Year's iteration of the Winter Classic, the fifth NHL outdoor game in the past seven-plus years. In addition to the NHL's efforts, in the past 12 months there have been an American Hockey League outdoor game in Syracuse; a Junior A outdoor game in Fort McMurray, Alberta; and a sort of indoor-outdoor game at the world championships in Germany that drew 77,803, a record eclipsed last month in Ann Arbor when 113,411 fans bundled up to watch Michigan play Michigan State, universities that touched off the outdoor craze in 2001. Amid all this alfresco action, the NHL (which will stage the Heritage Classic between the Canadiens and the Flames next month at Calgary's McMahon Stadium) differentiates its product by skating out a recognizable name like Crosby on a day on which its fiercest competitors generally are hangovers and 8--4 bowl teams.
While NBC was preparing to televise hockey's Big Thing, its unlikely television winger, HBO, was showcasing the small things, presenting a riveting and intimate portrait of the Capitals and the Penguins during the run-up to the Classic in its 24/7 series. Maybe the NHL will be able to leverage Winter Classic TV ratings into a rights-fee television deal with a major U.S. network—"[The game] is all about that," one NHL general manager said, and preliminary signs are that NBC won the night in the 18-to-49 male demographic—but the greater long-term benefit to the league might have been provided by the cable network, which seemed to do the impossible: For an hour a week over four weeks HBO made people care about hockey. 24/7 reacquainted sports fans with Crosby and Ovechkin. But it also introduced Ben Lovejoy's lopsided face and Max Talbot's impish joy in Pittsburgh and the Capitals' postgame victory music and Eric Fehr and his wife playing inner-city Santa Claus in Washington. Magic.
Of course, HBO also stood for Hear Boudreau Orate. From the moment Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau carpet bombed his team with 17 obscenities in a minutelong, between-periods rant in the first episode last month, he became the fulcrum of the series, the NHL equivalent to the Jets' Rex Ryan lighting up HBO's NFL series Hard Knocks. "I just spoke from the heart," Boudreau says. "Evidently I didn't realize I curse as much as I do when I speak from the heart." Heralded as a blue-collar coach, the garrulous Boudreau is also a seasoned pitchman, hawking carpet cleaners and cars in local commercials, and it's a wonder he hasn't monetized the rant into a supermarket campaign. Hi, Bruce Boudreau here. When I need my mouth washed out with soap, I head to....
This, of course, is the essence of the Winter Classic: The Sell. More than 68,000 fans. Thirty-seven commercial spots purchased by NHL sponsors. Twenty percent increase in sponsorship revenue over the previous year. Thirty-eight thousand (and counting) Winter Classic jerseys. Most cleverly, the Winter Classic sells the idea of NHL outdoor hockey as not merely legitimate but representative. While almost every NHLer grew up playing shinny on the pond, you have to search hard for any who played two-point games outdoors—hockey that was quantifiable, not just a lark. Almost all the NHL's 700-plus players are products of community arenas, refrigerated ice and other accoutrements of modern hockey reality. In 2011 the snow-globe moments in a professional hockey player's life are preserved in gauzy memory, not in the standings. The outdoor game is hockey's myth of origin, a tribal celebration. As a result, the Winter Classic now dwarfs All-Star weekend as the midseason showcase despite, or maybe because, it looks nothing like the other 1,229 games on the schedule. The Winter Classic is the hockey game for people who don't like hockey.
With its imperfect storm of sexy teams and heavy rain, the 2011 Winter Classic won't be the moment in which the sport came in from the cold, even if one of the protagonists happened to be the fabulous Ovechkin. Apparently he is still not a household face, even in his own hometown. On Dec. 24 Ovechkin and three friends boarded the noon Acela train at Union Station in D.C., bound for New York City. Even with that missing front tooth, he appeared to go unnoticed, except by a middle-aged woman who scolded the group to turn down its music. Ovechkin, a winter classic, obliged. If only HBO had been there.
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The Winter Classic dwarfs All-Star weekend as a midseason showcase. It's the hockey game FOR PEOPLE WHO DON'T LIKE HOCKEY.
ILLUSTRATION BY DARROW