24 April, 2014

Winter Classic III: Hits and Misses

There’s a 108 percent chance of the Capitals participating in the 2011 Winter Classic, unless you believe that the NHL would like to see another dump-and-chase exhibition seriously limited in its offensive prowess competency. Through two periods Saturday the novice hockey viewer at home could have been forgiven for believing that teams were penalized for shooting pucks on net. Saturday’s game delivered drama, to be sure — delivered by equally sonambulistic “attacks” from two Eastern conference also-rans. (It was telling for me how much NBC had to emphasize the 1970s’ accomplishments of these two franchises throughout the broadcast.)

But Fenway was a splendor of a winter wonderland. The overwhelming majority of the park’s patrons appeared to have a fantastic vantage on the action (such as it was). Fenway, I say, needs to be named as a regular in the Winter Classic rotation, like Pebble Beach or St. Andrews in golf. (Even if the local club has to be forbidden from skating in it.) It’s that good.

The league this week signaled what appeared to be a receptivity for taking the game out of its natural northern environs, and I believe that’d be a serious mistake. There’s just something magical about this game having at least the threat of a New Years Day snowfall in its backdrop. Thursday’s practice sessions were postcards of the season with their fast-falling, heavy flakes coating Fenway’s stands, players’ helmets, and broadcasters’ outerwear. The very adult players grinning ear to ear in the conditions appeared very much kids again as they took their paces in the Fenway snow globe. To move the game to Nashville or Raleigh or even Florida would be to remove no small element of this event’s distinctive charm. The first text message I received from Comcast’s Lisa Hillary from Fenway informed of her fingers being so cold that she planned on next texting me from Cheers. It would be no fun years hence to learn of her sunscreening herself at a Winter Classic. Without me.

The NBC broadcast commenced at 1:00. The puck dropped fully 40 minutes later. The league deserves plaudits for conceiving and developing this event as it has, but there appears now to be an early onset of NFL-extraveganza excess, almost Super Bowl-esque, settling in with broadcast production and off-ice distraction. If the heart of this matter is a celebration of our game’s outdoor origins, let’s get on the air, set up the matchups and the novel scene, and get on with the business of contesting the game within 30 minutes, no? Do we really need a line change, for instance, with national anthem singers? One guy (or gal) handles both in every other NHL instance. Personally, I’d have enjoyed hearing James Taylor sing both anthems (I’ve never heard his rendition of ‘O Canada.’) Inexplicably, a Neil Diamond song (Neil Diamond!), led by Denis Leary and some buffoon standing next to him in a mink coat, broke out, perversely, and interrupted the third period with the outcome very much in doubt. Seventh-inning stretches are for Fenway’s other sport. Whose idea was that? (Wager: Bettman’s)

The intermissions were extended – not egregiously, but close to it. I suspect that as the league’s outdoor showcase has evolved from the Heritage Classic to the present big production many, many more office hands and brains have gotten involved, as in too many chefs stirring the soup, and that’s a recipe for trouble. There should be a Winter Classic committee of less than 10 in the league’s office overseeing everything, and hard and fast groundrules should accompany every Classic going forward: 20-30 minutes of pregame BS, max; 18-minute intermissions, max; ixnay on the third-tier rock bands/musical acts performing off to the side; and Darren Pang must be provided a milk crate, or a snow bank, to stand upon for all of his interviews. At one point he interviewed Zdeno Chara’s crotch. He was like Mini-Me in earmuffs Saturday. In short, let’s show the country, now that New Years Day has been ceded to us, that the game is the essence, and inviolate, and that we are not willing to bastardize it for the broadcaster. Again, this event has not yet reached Tagliabue/Goodell super event pomposity, but there are a few troubling trends sprouting up. They need to be nipped in the bud.

I love the mites being bused in and skating shinny on the adjacent ice sheet. A peripheral aim with this event should be to promote the playing of outdoor hockey — even on streets and in roller blades — by our nation’s video-addicted and increasingly pudgy youths.    

So the game forsaked offense, but it did have a lot of hitting, and the Classic’s first-ever fisticuffs. Not a bad dance either between our friend Mr. Carcillo and Shawn Thornton.

Here’s what NBC did quite well, I thought: the numerous and widely varied camera angles. This aspect of the broadcast wasn’t over-produced, and the direction I thought was adept. Also, I thought the intermission features were generally strong. The Boston-Philly sportstown rivalry segment, what it lacked in original thinking, made up for with Curt Schilling’s most thoughtful commentary. He apparently flirted with the idea of state-wide political office recently, and his articulateness and poise suggested to me that he’d better represent many states (particularly his own) in the Senate right now. The second intermission feature on the 1980 Miracle at Lake Placid was a highlight of the broadcast, and the moderately greying, only slightly weathered heroes who joined Bob Costas and Mike Milbury on the set looked like they could win their share of senior beer leagues today. As they are for millions of other Americans, the ’80 legends remain my heroes, and I loved that they looked wonderful as we approach the 30th anniversary of the Miracle.

As natural light diminished over Fenway the broadcast gained a heightened and enticing visual aura, so much so that going forward I think it would serve the Classic well to start an hour later, perhaps as late as 2:45, and have a final period contested at night, fully under artificial lights. A fun and dramatic contrast, that. Early in the third period the game’s skaters strode with feint shadows following them, and it cast a sumptuous glow within the high definition screen I viewed. The Winter Classic is an event basking in a grand glow these days. Let it remain there.


  1. Junior wrote:

    I think this is spot on. In my view, the focus of this game should be the game itself. This is an event that should take hockey fans and denizens of colder climates back (perhaps somewhat falsely) to simpler times when the game was played on ponds and backyard rinks. The game should be the spectacle, not a mere interruption in the rest of the over-produced, maudlin “entertainment” that surrounds it. New Year’s Day has been ceded to the NHL almost by default; if the league has half a brain, it will gratefully accept that windfall and concentrate on making an event that is already good even better by using it to market the game, not J-Lo’s latest album or whatever. Taking this show on the road to Florida and adding marching bands would be perverse and weird. It would be a bowl game with no football being played, and I wouldn’t watch it.

    2 January, 2010 at 10:12 am | Permalink
  2. Valleycapsfan wrote:

    Agree with virtually everything, though I can’t comment on the intermission shows as I stepped out for a few minutes during both. The pregame was ridiculously long, and I wonder how many would-be fans fell away waiting for the game to start.
    As much as I’d like to see a Classic in DC, the odds are just too high that we could have a rainy day in the mid-50′s, a situation that is bound to happend eventually no matter where the event is. The Post indicated that Yankee Stadium won’t be available the next few years (RATS!). How ’bout Caps-Canadians? Not a US market, but would allow some good ol’ jingoism on both sides of the border to be exploited.

    2 January, 2010 at 10:49 am | Permalink
  3. Valley, if you peruse the comments from our poll (scroll down below the Ovechkin video), one of the popular suggestions is Ottawa vs. Washington — battle of the capital cities. Whether in Nationals Park or Rogers Centre, it’d be quite the “national pride” match-up.

    2 January, 2010 at 11:13 am | Permalink
  4. Junior, I enjoyed your observations as much as any I’ve encountered here in many months, not because they are in synch with my sentiments but because your phrasing evinced what some of my graduate school professors termed crispness of expression and sharpness of thought. Maybe you and I will be invited to serve on the league’s Winter Classic committee — we’d be the guards at the gate foiling the impulse to tramp-stamp and Vegas strip the affair.

    2 January, 2010 at 11:28 am | Permalink
  5. Jeremy wrote:

    I hate to be down on this event, but my concern is that the high quality of NHL play was simply not on display, despite that NBC would have you believe this was the Super Bowl of hockey. If I’m a casual fan, I turn on this broadcast expecting the best the NHL has to offer, what with the lengthy pregame, extended features, the handshakes at the end, and generally overblown emotion from the broadcasters. But – except for a good last couple minutes – the game was a snoozefest, offering almost none of the excitement (much less the skill and grace) on display at an ordinary old hockey game.

    Look, if the game helps the league, I’m happy. But if I’m a “casual fan” and I decide that this is the game I’m going to watch to see if I like hockey, I’m not getting a true sense of the skill and excitement the NHL has to offer any other night. The outdoor game may be especially evocative for northerners who grew up playing the game outside – and that’s great. But it makes for weak televised product, as much as NBC and the league wish otherwise.

    2 January, 2010 at 12:04 pm | Permalink
  6. odessa steps magazine wrote:

    Still getting over Costas saying Espo wore “77″.

    2 January, 2010 at 1:12 pm | Permalink
  7. Sam wrote:

    I have to disagree slightly. While I think it is great to bring the game back to its roots; I look at the Winter Classic as a much needed marketing tool. NHL is often cited as being the smallest of the “big 4″ American spectator sports. I appreciate the game but I also want it to expand to a larger market in the US. I want to see NHL surpass at least NBA in the “big four” (it should be pretty close by now). I think the Classic is a great game to market the league in ways that NBA can’t even if it is more glitzier and more glamorous than the throwback pond hockey.

    2 January, 2010 at 1:41 pm | Permalink
  8. Junior wrote:

    Sam, obviously you’re entitled to your opinion, but I’d be careful what you wish for if I were you.

    Back in the 70′s, I spent long hours in my room poring over back-issues of Hockey Digest and whatever Brian MacFarlane hockey books were distributed around the house dreaming of a day in the future when hockey (in the form of the NHL) would go more mainstream and get marketed to a wider audience. Like you, I wanted hockey to be seen as an equal member of the “big four” pantheon. Since then, the steps that have been taken in that direction have been almost uniformly infuriating. It is a much different thing to go to a hockey game since it began travelling the path blazed by the NBA before it – there are few nights anymore when the crowd decides when and what to cheer without being prompted by enormous televisions suspended over centre ice; so many promotions are incorporated into the games (submarine sandwiches being launched out of bazookas, mascots distributing cheap t-shirts, etc.) to make them attractive to non-fans that I wonder if fans of hockey per se are being created/attracted, or just fans of things that seem popular and feature lots of free giveaways. The essence of the sport seems lost among these things, to an extent.

    I know that sounds an awful lot more like an old fart’s lawn-protecting grumpy cane-waving than I intend; what I mean to say, though, is that the powers that be do a disservice to the game by trying to make it more like the NFL or the NBA. It’s not those things, great as they might be in their own way. Hockey and the NHL are something different and have their own identity to celebrate, enjoy and market. The Winter Classic ought to be something that deepens and enhances existing fans’ attachment to the game; if the celebration of the game’s origins or roots can attract some new fans along the way, more the better. But if the folks in the “larger market” of the U.S. (or anywhere else, for that matter) can’t grasp the reasons that something like this event would be enjoyable on its own and without the third-tier rock bands, schmaltzy over-extended ceremonies and out-size hype, then they probably won’t become hockey fans in the long term. That’s fine with me; my tickets will be cheaper, I’ll have better access to them, and it won’t diminish my love for the game in the least.

    2 January, 2010 at 2:15 pm | Permalink
  9. Letz Go Caps wrote:

    I fully expected a ridiculously long pregame and so didn’t even bother to tune in until 1:30. I wasn’t really perturbed by watching what I thought was pretty solid goaltending and defense. Probably not sexy enough for the casual fan though I suppose. You sound a bit crotchety to me and I think you better get used to the garish overproduction because it’s simply not going away. Flip away if you must when the puck is not in play because for me when it is the event is very enjoyable.

    2 January, 2010 at 7:54 pm | Permalink
  10. aphid wrote:

    I concur with Pucks and Junior: this Winter Classic was wonderful and enjoyable, but pushed–and sometimes broke–the boundaries of what I like to see in my hockey broadcasts when it came to pomp and induced emotion.

    I heartily applaud the suggestion of a “Gang of <10″ to impose some restraint on the more Stupid Bowl-like ideas dreamed up by NHL, NBC, Bridgestone, Honda, et al. Hear, hear on the suggestion of one artist for both anthems–and *no* “7th inning” nonsense.

    As for next year, I’m thrilled the Caps are strong contenders. I’d love to attend Caps v. Habs…smoked meat here I come, and book my room at Hôtel Le St-James! Or how about Caps v. TBD in Quebec City? It’s a lovely city, with a long hockey tradition, and they need/deserve an NHL team again. (Not to mention staying at Le Château Frontenac!) No southern excursions, please.

    2 January, 2010 at 8:53 pm | Permalink