WASHINGTON — Washington Capitals coach Barry Trotz, in all his stocky, smiling glory, stepped to the podium inside a makeshift media room at Nationals Park and asked the question that seemed to be lost on so many in the buildup to the 2015 Winter Classic.
“I’ve got a question,” Trotz said. “Did anybody have any fun?”
For weeks, questions about the “buzz” around the seventh installment of the league’s marquee outdoor game featuring the Chicago Blackhawks and Capitals attempted to cloud the excitement in the nation’s capital. There was the pageantry of a rink-sized flowing American flag and the overarching seriousness that while this game is spectacle first, contest second, the two points were most important to these teams.
But man, how does everyone forget how much fun these games can be, especially when they feature two outstanding teams playing at the top of their games entering New Year’s Day?
Troy Brouwer reminded the 42,832 fans in attendance about fun when he scored with 12.9 seconds remaining in the third period to give the Capitals a 3-2 win and a reason to celebrate like those Caps teams of years past, when fresh-faced, budding superstars were filling nets the way the Winter Classics fill stadiums.
After Brouwer’s shot beat Blackhawks goaltender Corey Crawford, seat cushions given to all fans in attendance were flung toward the field, littering the area where the warning track would be in the outfield. It was a big moment for Brouwer, who was on the winning side of the 2009 Winter Classic as a member of the Blackhawks and had never scored against his former club since coming to Washington in 2011.
It was even more special than that for Brouwer. His father, Don, suffered a major stroke during the Blackhawks’ run to the Cup in 2010 and since hasn’t been able to watch his son play live very often. But Don was in Washington for the first time on Thursday and was able to enjoy what was maybe not the biggest goal of his son’s career but certainly one of the more special ones.
“He texted me, but that's it,” Brouwer said. “I haven't responded to him. I figured I would wait until I got home to kind of share it with him. But knowing how my dad is right now, he's probably got a couple tears.”
Therein lies what makes a seemingly mundane game so special. Points in a Winter Classic count the same as points in a January road game in Dallas. It’s easy to become jaded when you focus on how this game is actually a masterful job of deception by a corporation to get fans to fork over more money to buy merchandise and watch a game that has no more significance than any other regular-season game.
But that doesn’t mean it’s not fun.
It’s fun for players. It’s fun for fans. It’s fun for the league.
Heck, it even seemed fun for Billy Idol, who belted out three songs before the game with the vigor of a man who believed it was still 1983.
There was even a modern-day rock star imposing his will on an artificially big stage—Alex Ovechkin.
Ovechkin slammed home his 18th goal of the season in the first period to put the Caps ahead 2-0, jumping into the arms of his teammates after he circled behind the net as if it was 2009. Later, he was the catalyst on Brouwer’s winner, forcing a Blackhawk to slash him as he drove to the net, freeing his teammate for a spinning shot that won the game.
In all, Ovechkin had 13 shot attempts, four that hit the net and two that drew iron.
It was a throwback performance that didn’t require a single drop of hair dye or a White Wedding.
“Alex is a rock star,” Trotz said. “Alex has this ability, as the great stars do, that you want to keep your eyes on them, even when they’re not doing anything, good, bad or indifferent. You want to watch him. That’s what star power does.
“You can say bad game, good game, whatever. You can pick him apart. The bigger the stage, the more Alex stands up to it.”
“I always have fun,” Ovechkin said. “But this is probably one of the special days.”
This was just the second Winter Classic for the Capitals franchise and the first one played on their home turf. They beat the Penguins at Heinz Field in 2011 in a rainy, prime-time game that certainly wasn’t as aesthetically pleasing as this one but was a satisfying win against their archrivals.
Some said that these games, especially after there were six outdoor games last year, were beginning to lose their luster. The Blackhawks played outside at Soldier Field 10 months ago, and there weren’t too many fresh faces receiving newfound exposure in the 2015 incarnation of this affair.
Yet players, who tend to be passive-aggressive through the media when it comes to expressing displeasure about something out of their control, couldn’t wait to express the joy they felt about being involved again in this event.
“This was my second one, and I’ve been fortunate enough to be on the winning side of both,” said Capitals defenseman Mike Green, who had two assists. “This one was definitely, by far, a better experience than the last one. And the last one, it was my most memorable time playing in the NHL. So this takes it.”
“I’ve said it before—I think our fans are as loud as anybody in the league,” Caps center Brooks Laich said. “I always tell my friends from back home to come watch a hockey game in D.C. if you want to see an atmosphere. They made it a great environment and a great stage.”
This was the fourth time Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik played in an outdoor game and his third Winter Classic. He’s won two, lost two and said this most recent win was even better than any he’s experienced playing outside.
“That was my fourth, and it was probably the most fun one,” Orpik said. “It’s always more fun when you win. I’m a big baseball fan, and that was my first one in a baseball stadium. I think the setup in a baseball stadium is a little better. It feels like the crowd is a little closer.”
Maybe the television ratings will paint a different picture. Maybe it turns out that people outside of Chicago and Washington weren’t enticed enough to turn off college bowl games to watch an F-16 flyover and Lee Greenwood sing about America. Maybe the NHL is still a niche sport that can only draw so many casual fans into a fun, albeit manufactured, event.
Capitals owner Ted Leonsis rolled his eyes so hard at the idea that this Winter Classic lacked the same buzz level as the six previous games that he almost collapsed in the Nationals locker room, American flag scarf around his neck and all.
Instead, he painted the picture of what this game meant to the fans in attendance when he was on the field before the game this morning.
“I was walking to do an interview this morning and there was this mother and daughter, and they had their arms around each other, and they had the biggest smiles on their faces,” Leonsis said. “I just stopped and I looked at them and one of the ladies blew me a kiss. That’s one of the moments you want to capture. You want to make life-long memories, and bringing a game like this to the community was our intention, and the franchise needed two points.
“So to have really, really happy fans and get two points in the standings, it feels good.”
If you watched the star-studded, fun-filled contest, then you experienced something—from a nice time on your couch at home to overwhelming joy (or perhaps sadness, depending on where your fandom lies) when Brouwer’s shot, with his dad looking on, hit the back of the net.
It’s easy to forget that this sport is supposed to fun. The Winter Classic is a reminder that it’s OK for even the most cynical person to embrace the spirit of the thing.
“It's pretty special, for sure,” Brouwer said. “I've had some good moments in my hockey career, but this one, with all the intangibles that played a part in it—my parents being able to come into town, playing against my former team, this being the first goal that I scored against my former team and the dramatic fashion at the end of the game of how everything played out—is definitely going to be a memorable day, a memorable event.
“The entire lead-up to this has been a lot of fun, and the finish couldn't have worked out any better for us as a team and me personally.”
All statistics via NHL.com and Stats.HockeyAnalysis.com.
Dave Lozo covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @DaveLozo.