Cen­ter ice, cen­ter stage

The Cap­i­tals re­ward le­gions of ador­ing fans who ven­ture to Pitts­burgh for an event that’s much more than a hockey game

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY DAN STEINBERG IN PITTS­BURGH

The stand­ings will show that Satur­day night’s NHL Win­ter Clas­sic— an out­door game played in front of more than 68,000 fans on a soggy Pitts­burgh evening — counted ex­actly the same for the Washington Cap­i­tals as the 39 games that pre­ceded it, and as the 42 games that will fol­low. The Cap­i­tals won, 3-1, be­hind two goals from un­her­alded winger Eric Fehr, earn­ing the stan­dard two points in the stand­ings.

For the tens of thou­sands of Wash­ing­to­ni­ans who poured into Western Penn­syl­va­nia for this New Year’s Day event, though, this burst of na­tional at­ten­tion meant some­thing far more than its re­sult.

“It’s val­i­da­tion,” said Pa­trick Thomp­son, a 22-year-old who said he’s rooted for the Cap­i­tals since he was in kinder­garten.

“It’s le­git­i­macy,” said John My­ers, a 34-year-old who has fol­lowed the team his en­tire life.

“It’s like the Su­per Bowl, like the Su­per Bowl of hockey,” said Diana Pumphrey, a 66-year-old who has been a Cap­i­tals fan since the fran­chise was cre­ated in 1974.

It’s a clunky metaphor, of course. For win­ning this game — held out­doors on New Year’s Day an­nu­ally since 2008 — the Cap­i­tals re­ceived zero cham­pi­onship tro­phies or banners. But the hype sur­round­ing the Caps’ vic­tory over the ri­val Pen­guins — which in­cluded four hour­long be­hind-the-scenes doc­u­men­taries on HBO — brought Washington’s hockey fran­chise a level of at­ten­tion per­haps un­prece­dented since its only ap­pear­ance in the Stan­ley Cup Fi­nals in 1998.

The NHL cre­den­tialed 511 me­dia mem­bers from 125 out­lets for the game, about the same as for a Stan­ley Cup fi­nals and about dou­ble the me­dia con­tin­gent for a nor­mal Cap­i­tals play­off game. Four years af­ter av­er­ag­ing just 13,929 fans at home games, the Cap­i­tals sold 20,000 tick­ets for this road game, and NHL and team

of­fi­cials es­ti­mated an­other 7,000 to 10,000 Cap­i­tals fans bought tick­ets on the sec­ondary mar­ket.

One fan group alone — the Caps Road Crew — sent nine tour buses car­ry­ing 450 peo­ple to Pitts­burgh. More than 400 other fans made travel ar­range­ments through the team.

“ There’s some­thing higher here than the two points,” said long­time hockey broad­caster Mike Em­rick, who called the game for NBC’s prime-time tele­cast. “ The two points are im­por­tant, sure, but there’s some­thing higher here. The Caps have got a great thing go­ing al­ready, but will [the Win­ter Clas­sic] make it big­ger? Yeah, it sure will.”

For one week­end in Pitts­burgh, it was hard to ig­nore how much progress the fran­chise has al­ready made. Washington sports fans are fa­mously thin-skinned about the never-end­ing fan in­va­sions staged by op­pos­ing teams, with Pitts­burgh’s Pen­guins and Steel­ers par­tic­u­larly en­thu­si­as­tic tres­passers.

On this week­end, though, the streets of Pitts­burgh were thick with young Washington area res­i­dents wear­ing red jer­seys and chant­ing for their team. Se­cu­rity em­ploy­ees at the Hof­brauhaus — a down­town bar — said on New Year’s Eve that they had never seen as­many vis­it­ing fans, for any team, in any sport.

“You can’t turn a corner with­out see­ing a hand­ful of [Cap­i­tals fans], on ev­ery corner,” said Howard Frame, 38, a Cap­i­tals fan since 1986. “You walk into any bar or res­tau­rant and it’s like the Red Army’s in­vaded.”

“For all the years when Pitts­burgh fans dom­i­nated in Ver­i­zon Cen­ter, there’s a lit­tle bit of pay­back,” added Mike Reidy, a 12-year sea­son ticket-holder from Spring­field.

And the team al­ready has been ex­posed to a mas­sive au­di­ence through its par­tic­i­pa­tion in the HBO se­ries. The first episode, which ini­tially aired Dec. 15, is ex­pected to at­tract a fi­nal au­di­ence of about 2.8 mil­lion view­ers on tele­vi­sion and on­line. By com­par­i­son, the most watched reg­u­lar sea­son Cap­i­tals game in Com­cast Sport­sNet his­tory at­tracted an au­di­ence of about 134,000 house­holds in the Washington mar­ket. The HBO se­ries has gar­nered so much pos­i­tive at­ten­tion for the league that some have spec­u­lated that fu­ture Win­ter Clas­sic par­tic­i­pants could be re­quired to par­tic­i­pate in a sim­i­lar show.

And one of those fu­ture par­tic­i­pants fig­ures to again be this Cap­i­tals team. Team owner Ted Leon­sis said Satur­day that the game will come to Washington within the next two or three years, and that the fran­chise could fill a large out­door arena en­tirely with its own fans.

“ To think that 30,000 peo­ple would come New Year’s Day, a five-hour car ride away, shows how much we’ve de­vel­oped a loyal fan­base in our mar­ket,” Leon­sis said be­fore the game. “We still have a lot of work to do, but it shows that our fran­chise is re­ally ma­tur­ing, that our fans are in love with the team, and that they’ve en­trusted us with their time and their pas­sion.”

Of course, were the Win­ter Clas­sic to come to Washington, weather would un­doubt­edly be a con­cern. Warm weather and the threat of rain con­vinced NHL of­fi­cials on Fri­day to push back the game’s sched­uled start time from 1 to 8 p.m. Fri­day’s out­door prac­tice, on an un­sea­son­ably sunny and warm day, led to pot­holes on the ice and safety con­cerns.

“ That ice was melt­ing faster than Frosty the Snow­man,” Cap­i­tals Coach Bruce Boudreau later said.

By Satur­day evening, the tem­per­a­tures were drop­ping but the rain re­turned, es­pe­cially late in the game, leav­ing stand­ing wa­ter on the ice and a bizarre trail of drops trail­ing the puck. Be­cause of strong winds, the teams switched sides mid­way through the third pe­riod, and work­ers cleaned wa­ter off the ice dur­ing breaks.

“It’s amaz­ing. Hon­estly, that’s all I can say — it’s amaz­ing,” said James McLeod of Fred­er­icks­burg, who re­cently gave up his Red­skins sea­son tick­ets in or­der to up­grade his Cap­i­tals seats. “I hope so many things. I don’t want to hope too much, but the sky’s the limit af­ter this, in my opin­ion.”

TONI L. SANDYS/THE WASHINGTON POST

Washington’s Alex Ovechkin cel­e­bratesMike Knu­ble’s score against the Pen­guins dur­ing the sec­ond pe­riod of the Win­ter Clas­sic atHeinz Field in Pitts­burgh.

JONATHAN NEWTON/THE WASHINGTON POST

Fans watch from high above atHeinz Field in Pitts­burgh as the puck drops be­tween theWash­ing­ton Cap­i­tals and the Pitts­burgh Pen­guins in the Win­ter Clas­sic. Thou­sands of Cap­i­tals fan made the trip and got to see their team cap­ture a 3-1 vic­tory in the NHL’s an­nual event.

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