Sunday, January 2, 2011

Leftover Winter Classic thoughts


I've been to quite a number of sporting events over the years. Assuming I had a choice in the matter (read: once I got my driver's license and wasn't at the whim of someone else being in charge of transportation), I would testify to never arriving at my destination with over three hours to kill before the event is scheduled to begin.

Now, my career list of sporting events is relatively narrow; the only postseason events under my belt are Penguins games. Steelers tickets are a) hard to come by, b) expensive, and c) not worth it, so I've been to very few football games. Some college events here and there but mostly regular-season stuff, so nothing all that marquee.

The Winter Classic is a different beast. Considering the tens of thousands of people we expected to be there (announced attendance was 68,000 and change), my friends and I decided to get there pretty early to beat traffic and find a parking spot. While still "just" a regular season game, the game has become its own event, its own spectacle.

I wasn't at any of the previous Winter Classics. The key one was the first in Buffalo. Was that just a game? Did the NHL have any idea what they had on their hands? The people who went, did they have nothing but a game to entertain themselves?

If the answer to the last question was yes, then the game has undergone a bigger metamorphosis than Kafka.

Honestly? It felt like I was at a carnival. It's like there wasn't an actual hockey game to be played. It felt more like, "Come down and see the sights! Play the games! Drink!"

At 4 p.m., for an 8 p.m. game, there was already a mass of people around Heinz Field. There were food stands that sold corndogs. There were beer tents. A dozen souvenir stands. A number of tents with various games, including a Sidney Crosby-esque "shoot the dryer" game. Face-painting kiosks. A live rock band was set up on a stage outside. There was an ice sculpture in the form of a zamboni with a stuffed penguin in the driver's seat.

There was a man ON STILTS, for crying out loud.

Of course, there was an auxiliary ice rink for public skating sessions and whatnot. One of the more interesting aspects of the outside was an area with ice sculptures. The neat thing was the temperature around the sculptures was distinctly 20 degrees or so colder than the abnormally warm 50-ish degrees everywhere else.

My friend, whom we'll call John (because that's his name), found this particularly refreshing since he put on roughly 20 pounds of clothes, including a bulky set of Farmer John (get it?) overalls, after we had parked. He was roasting as of 4:30 p.m.

The strangest sight, however, was "Burgh Man." I don't live in the city, so I don't know if Burgh Man is a popular figure or not; this was the first time I'd seen him. But this individual wore a helmet with lights, a cape with lights bearing the words of his identity, and glow-in-the-dark rollerblades with various colored lights on them. He was skating up and down the closed road that led to Heinz Field.

Oh, and he was juggling three clear, lit-up bowling pins.

I thought we had taken a wrong turn and ended up at the state fair.

When gates to Heinz Field opened at 5:30, my friends and I had no real intent on entering immediately. We figured we'd let the rush die down a bit before entering. Once inside, there wasn't anything too out of the ordinary, save for a second band.

Most amusing part of the evening? As we were walking up Heinz Field's ramps, taking pictures at various elevations, we looked down at the two giant inflatable jerseys that were set up. (Similar to Bob Costas' favorite giant inflatable beavers.) Well, some people were getting their picture taken in front of the jerseys, then some drunks decided to push the things over. Then they tried to put them back in place but couldn't figure out how to do it. We moved on before authorities entered the area.

My seats were about nine rows from the top of the stadium, under an overhang, so I was one of the few people who stayed dry when it rained. I had a nice view of the rink, but the players were small and the puck looked like an ant, if the ant was about 1/100th its normal size. Much farther away than my seats in the Civic Arena or Consol Energy Center. I had no idea Evgeni Malkin scored until I saw the referee point to the net, ditto on Mike Knuble's goal. Eric Fehr's first goal I only knew was a goal because I saw the net move.

In the early going, either the Heinz Field staff members or the NHL or NBC screwed something up, because the upper level could barely hear anything said over the PA system, including the anthem singers. Jackie Evancho is supposedly this great singer, as proven on America's Got Talent; I wouldn't have known she was singing if I didn't see her moving her arms around. People in nearby sections were singing the Star-Spangled Banner because we couldn't hear the kid.

Apart from the sightline and sound problem, the actual gameday experience wasn't too different. I suppose I was glad I went, but considering the result, I might've been just as happy if I'd stayed home. But hey, I can say I was there. I took pictures, something I've never done at a game except for a handful of shots from the Civic Arena's last game.

I wouldn't look forward to going to another Winter Classic, however.

Future games?
So, shouldn't we discuss, if just briefly, what the next Classic game should be?

If you ask me, it definitely needs to be Western-orientated. We've had three Eastern matchups in four games so far. A game in New York's large market would be tempting, but let's think outside the box for once, shall we, NHL?

The league put the Penguins and Capitals in the game in reaction to the jaw-droppingly-boring Philadelphia-Boston matchup. I don't think it worked. Neither team was all that exciting, the Capitals in small spurts. So, let's have another knee-jerk reaction. It rained. Let's make sure we get snow.

Thus, let's go to either Minnesota or Denver. No way we won't get snow in one of those two places, right? Let's have one of those two teams host the game. Opponents shouldn't be difficult to come up with. Los Angeles is a nice up-and-coming team. Vancouver's got oodles of talent.

I liked Kevin Allen's idea - I think it was his - of having a game in Green Bay between Minnesota and Chicago, but let's get some new blood in the game. No team that's already been in one should be in the next edition. I didn't like Pittsburgh being in this game, and based on how the Penguins played, I sure as hell don't want them in another one, ever.

The Avalanche would be a more likely host than the Wild, because, well, let's face it, the Avalanche are going in the right direction far more than the Wild. NBC's xenophobia probably rules out Vancouver from being involved, but I'd like to see any of the Kings, Ducks, Stars or maybe even the Blue Jackets play in the game.

Just, please, not the same old teams we see all the time anyway. Try branching out to teams who don't get a lot of exposure.

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