Bright and early on the first day of the new decade P, Red, Josh and I all climbed into the minivan and headed up to Pittsburgh for the 2011 Winter Classic. We had been looking forward and planning this trip from the day it was announced that the Caps and the Pens would be playing outside on New Years Day. To say we were excited would be the understatement of the year (both old and new).
The game alone was enough to have us talking and dreaming about it all year long but over the last few weeks the excitement was amped up a thousand percent. With HBO’s killer documentary series 24/7 showing the “Road to the Winter Classic” we could barely contain ourselves. The series started out showing our beloved Caps at their lowest low and the hated Penguins at their highest high. That first episode was enough to make even the most optimistic Caps fans hang their heads and start to prepare themselves for the fact that playing on the biggest stage the NHL had to offer might not be the best thing at this time.
But thankfully, over the last few weeks, the Caps had started to turn the corner with wins in 4 out of the last 5 and the only loss was the shootout loss to the Pens. I think that was the first time that I had ever come away with a loss feeling great about the team. We had outplayed the Penguins for almost the entire game and losing in a shootout (which I still think has no business ending any regular season contest) was fine by me. We really looked like we were ready to take them on. The optimism was returning.
Then the weather reports started coming in. For the week before we were dreading the news and each day the outlook grew worse and worse. Weather in the 50s and rain in the forecast had all of us banging our heads against the walls. Was the game going to be able to even be played at all? After all this anticipation would the game be called off? Our hourly checks of the weather for the entire week was just getting us more and more nervous. But then, on New Years Eve, the announcement came that the start time of 1pm had been pushed back to 8pm. I know I stood up and cheered as I watched the announcement on the NHL Network. This was the first time in my life where hearing about something I was so excited about had been postponed and it was a good thing.
Not only did this mean that we wouldn’t have to get up at 5am on New Years Day to drive up to Pittsburgh but it meant we would be playing at primetime under the lights. We were all ready to be asleep by around 10 and ring in the New Year with snores but now we could drink it up and enjoy the night. We already had a low-key affair planned and we stuck to it but we did have a few more drinks than we had planned and got to see Dick Clark (poor poor Dick Clark. Dude, you really need to call it quits ringin’ in the New Year on television. It is quite depressing) pathetically count down as the ball dropped in Times Square.
We were all up bright and early and had smooth sailing all the way up to Pittsburgh. I don’t think I have ever seen P so nervous though. He was complaining about the butterflies and feeling sick for the entire trip. The anticipation inside the van was almost tangible.
We were in Pittsburgh for all of 5 minutes before the first verbal assaults started. We were just standing outside the hotel starting to unload the bags when no less that 6 cars drove by hurling insults at all of us standing around in our Caps gear. I have never been called a faggot more times in such a short period of time in my life. But we basked in their taunts and (for the most part) just let them wash over us without firing shots back at them.
It was quickly apparent that our fears of showing up and being one of a few Caps fans in attendance were unfounded. Everywhere we looked there were Caps fans. We were starting to feel like this was going to be something really special and it was confirmed when we read this article in the Post:
“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 as many 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.”
And it was so true. There were Caps fans everywhere. It was amazing. Really, it was the first time ever where my chest was puffed out with pride by the fans of my team. To see this much support for a team that could barely give away their tickets a few years ago was just something that made all of us beam.
We tried to sit in the hotel room and rest up a bit before the game but soon found out that was an impossibility. We were just too antsy to hang out and do nothing. So we packed up all our game gear and headed over to the Rivers Casino for the last few hours before the gates opened. We figured that we could get some drinks and work off a little of our edginess. P and Red both tried their hands at the tables while Josh and I wandered around with blank stares. One thing that wasn’t hard to notice though was the amount of Caps jerseys in the casino. In every direction you looked there were friendlies. It was great to be able to walk around behind enemy lines with your gear on and really not have to worry about being jumped by some drunk Pens fan. There were just too many of us…we were everywhere.
We all had a feeling that the hockey gods were on our side even before we made it into the Casino. As we were making our way up the parking garage to find a place to park they closed off the 7th level on the car right before us. So we followed behind a the Victory Security Guard up to the 8th level of the garage which just happened to be the Red level. So we followed Victory to Red 8. This game was going to be ours.
Soon it was time for the gates to open. We went back to the van and packed on our winter gear in anticipation of the falling temperatures and then headed over to Heinz Field. The walk over was filled with good natured banter back and forth between the fans from both teams and everyone was in a great mood. It was actually quite impressive how well everyone was behaving. For the most part the Pens fans were cordial and the Caps fans weren’t as “dicky” as most of the visiting fans are when they come to DC.
Game time was so close we could taste it.
We made our way to our seats and could not have been happier. They were really great seats and as we looked around we noticed that our section was dominated by Caps fans. Awesome. As the crowd slowly made their way to their seats we could see Red everywhere. Every section had big red blotches mixed in among the black and blue Pens fans. And when the National Anthem was being sung it was readily apparent that we were there in force. The “RED” shout seemed louder than it ever does at Verizon.
I think that my voice was already starting to go before the first period was even half way gone.
When Erskine and Rupp dropped the gloves, all 68,111 screaming fans were on their feet. When Erskine beat up on Rupp and made him quit the fight by calling in the linesman the entire Caps contingent exploded. But when Malkin scored so quickly into the 2nd period the Caps fans were quickly drowned out by the bloodthirsty Pens fans.
But scores by Fehr and Knuble before the 2nd was out had the Caps fans going absolutely nuts. And we never looked back.
What we really couldn’t believe was that Styx was playing between the 2nd and 3rd. Styx? Really? That is the band that Steelers fan’s use to get pumped up on game day. Wow. I mean, I guess it works but Wow.
When Fehr got his second of the night in the 3rd period on a breakaway the game was pretty much over. The only thing left to do was wear out what was left of my voice cheering as loudly as I could. It was great to look around and see all of the Pens fans with that dejected look that we are so used to when playing these guys.
Can’t wait to watch that final episode of 24/7 on Wednesday. Even if I wasn’t a fan of the Caps this would have been such a great series. The team that was just painful to watch in the majority of the first two episodes comes back to beat up on the NHL darlings in the final episode. This is what great sports movies are made of.
Even the food tasted better after that win. My Steak, Potato, Eggs and 2 orders of Bacon were just delicious at the Cracker Barrel as we drove home.
Here is to hoping that this New Year is as good as that first day. Let’s Go Caps!