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.