During the first intermission of the Winter Classic, with pop-rock singer Gavin DeGraw performing and pyrotechnics lighting up the infield of Nationals Park, a group of about 20 youth hockey players tossed around a puck on an auxiliary rink in what is usually center field. Except it wasn’t just a small rink where children could play the game they love. It was a mock reflecting pool, laid out in front of a scaled-down reconstruction of the Capitol.
The Winter Classic, which the Capitals won in nail-biting fashion on Thursday, was originally billed as a throwback to hockey’s origins. Teams wear jerseys inspired by the historical garb of their franchises. Pre-game video montages show serene, snow globe-like scenes of children skating on board-less lakes, while current NHL players provide voice-over narration, speaking about the pond hockey battles of their youth. But in the seventh year of the NHL’s annual New Year’s Day game, it is clear that the Winter Classic is about much more than returning to the roots of hockey.
The heavily sponsored game, staged by sports and media giant IMG Productions, drew nearly 43,000 fans to Nationals Park in 2015. The preparations for the NHL’s biggest event of the regular season rival any Super Bowl. The world’s largest mobile refrigeration unit, made specially for the NHL’s outdoor events, used 20,000 gallons of water to create an NHL-caliber rink. Hundreds of employees from the league’s facilities department worked for weeks prior to the Classic to build and maintain a hockey rink in the middle of Nationals Park. The technology is certainly different from the way in which Caps great Peter Bondra and his childhood friends would construct rinks in Slovakia.
“In my days, obviously if the rink is close to somebody’s house, we can take water in the bucket and pour it at the evening when everything freezes,” Bondra said at an earlier Winter Classic event.
Pre-game festivities and entertainment have grown since the inaugural Winter Classic in 2008. After 80s rock star Billy Idol serenaded the crowd in Washington, D.C., with hits such as “Rebel Yell” and “White Wedding,” the Capitals and Blackhawks entered the stadium via the replica reflecting pool, all while fireworks sparked up from the rafters of Nationals Park. The U.S. Army Chorus’ rendition of the national anthem was punctuated by a flyover by two F-16 Fighter Jets. Apparently, a performance by a chorus that routinely performs at the White House and for world leaders and dignitaries was not quite epic enough.
Despite the Winter Classic’s over-the-top elements, the NHL honored the military throughout the game in a stirring and tasteful fashion. The U.S. Army Chorus’ performances of the anthems of all five military branches were especially poignant given the game’s location in the nation’s capital. The crowd at Nationals Park continued to buzz with patriotism as they belted out “God Bless the USA” along with country singer Lee Greenwood during the second intermission.
The Winter Classic is a breathtaking event, but by adding more and more ‘extras’ to the game each year, it seems that hockey – which is ultimately what the league wants to promote – could get lost in the spectacle.
Winter Classic participants, however, relish the experience.
“The whole day was unbelievable,” Washington captain Alexander Ovechkin said. “It has been outstanding. The atmosphere on the ice, since the first second was unreal.”
While the fireworks and mash-up of musical acts can make the Winter Classic seem more like a sideshow than a serious sporting event, perhaps that simply puts more pressure on the participating teams to dazzle the crowd, which the Blackhawks and Capitals did in 2015.
“We started talking about the Winter Classic since we started the season and this is it,” Ovechkin said. “I remember (Troy) Brouwer said, ‘it’s a good time to show up and make a show.’ And he did.”