Our puckhead has returned from Pittsburgh with inside information on Dan Bylsma's hat, an autographed photo of Styx, and the lasting image of Barry Melrose waiting in beerless frustration at the bar.
I was at a bar near Heinz Field at around 5 p.m. on Friday night when the league announced that the Winter Classic would be moved from 1 p.m. to an 8 p.m. start time. I got the press release in my email and turned to a couple next to me that was decked out in black and yellow jerseys and Mardi Gras beads, likely having come from the fan events being held near the ice. "They moved the game to 8," I informed them, but of course they already knew. So did the bartender. It was like they had some next-level phone tree in place at the bar.
"More time to recover from New Year's!" I said, and the woman nodded her platinum blonde head thoughtfully. "Yeah, that's true," she said. "But now it's gonna be a looong night for us." They were planning to drive to Cleveland after the game to catch the Steelers the next day. These people do not mess around.
But neither, to their immense credit, do Caps fans, who drove into town in droves. All weekend long they were out in full force despite being the visiting team; the league reported that 30,000 tickets were sold to DC supporters. In all, 68,111 fans braved shitty weather and faraway seats just to be part of the experience.
And it's quite an experience indeed. The Winter Classic is sometimes described as having a Super Bowl vibe, but the relative stakes of the two games aside, there's another key difference. People watching or attending the Super Bowl would never utter phrases like "Oh, this is so great for the game!" or "Wow, what a coup for the league!" But for hockey fans who have long endured "hoc-key?"-level zingers and smirking references to NHL ratings being down there with the tractor pull, seeing nothing but hockey jerseys filling a football stadium was a legitimate point of optimism and pride. And EVERYONE was wearing hockey jerseys, seriously. I'm half-convinced they came along with the ticket.
The Caps and the Penguins may be the most heated of rivals, but outside the rink there was a hockey-first jolliness to most fans' behavior. I particularly enjoyed Caps owner Ted Leonsis's comment: "The highlight for me was two sections filled with Caps fans and Pens fans and they looked at each other and they started chanting 'Flyers suck.' It's like they bonded around something."
It's the pushing him down that really ties the attack together: On the other hand, there were reports, via @worstfan, of at least one attendee who wasn't filled with that old Winter Classic charity.
Disco Dan Draper: Hockey fashion has long been a minor obsession of mine — a good friend in college once accurately summed up the stylings of our friends on the team as "the mustard shirt with the mustard tie." You see a lot of waxy fabric and pinstripes, is all. But Penguins coach Dan Bylsma, appearing pregame on television, took things in a whole new direction, donning a Trilby hat and a long black coat as if he were the lovechild of Don Draper and Gordon Bombay. (The leather varsity jacket the league made both coaches wear during the actual game sadly diluted the look.)
I didn't want to be that chick living up to the stereotypes and pestering the losing coach about his hat after the game, but I did strike up a conversation with a few guys on the HBO 24/7 crew. A day earlier I had asked a few players if they'd miss the cameras, and several, including the Capitals' Niklas Backstrom and the Penguins' Ben Lovejoy said that they would at least miss the people behind them. (Brooks Laich, not so much: "I'm a hockey player, not an actor," he whined.) In his post-game press conference Bylsma said that he and the team had been comparing the crew's departures to the goodbyes that occur when a player is sent down to the minors.
And so I shouldn't have been surprised when HBO sound recordist Edward O'Connor knew the backstory of the hat.
"My birthday was Dec. 19, and we were cutting through an airport," he said. "And a camera man bought me a very similar hat. And when the coach saw it, he took it off my head, looked at it, and said: 'Too flashy. Something more subtle.'
"And yet," he continued, grinning, "with all due respect, his was a litttttle bit flashy. It had some sort of band around it." I agreed that I had definitely noticed some prominant stitching. "He's a litttttle bit of a fashion plate," O'Connor said. "He wanted to look like Lombardi."
Did he know where the coach got it? "No, but I'll bet you that it's probably in that same stall at the airport," he said.
Also, he calls EJ Hradek "Eej," which of course he does: Speaking of hockey fashion, there's something so NHL-ily perfect about meeting a friendly Deadspin reader and some of his friends at the hotel bar after the game and suddenly finding yourself being introduced to a man wearing a loud gray striped suit and loud red striped tie, and the introducer saying, "Katie, this is Barry."
Oh, hello, Barry. Barry MELROSE. The ESPN fixture and onetime-L.A. Kings coach (I choose to pretend Tampa Bay never happened) has been the most recognizable face in hockey media for nearly two decades — or at least the most recognizable mullet — the kind of guy your mom would comment upon when she walked into the den.
It was both wondrous and weird. I always think of Barry Melrose as a part of my youth, as somehow forever trapped in the amber of that mid-'90s glowing-puck, Brett Hull, expansion-team era that had been the NHL's closest brush with a mainstream heyday until the more homegrown, Original Six, retro-jersey, appeal-to-the-NBC-Olympics-crowd growth of the last several years.
The slow death march of time carries on. Jeremy Roenick has transitioned from one of the most fearsome video game athletes in history to a judge on Battle of the Blades — a Canadian game show that is basically Dancing With The Stars meets The Cutting Edge. (I've only seen the first two episodes, but was terrified to see what has become of former favorite P.J. Stock.) Wayne Gretzky has gone from the sports greatest ambassador to someone who plays golf in Palm Beach live on NBC on the day of hockey's biggest showcase. I kid, kind of — this was Mario's turn to reluctantly shine.
And even Barry Melrose, whose famous hockey flow is now all salt and peppered, has grown from goofy young analyst to something approaching a statesman. He looks like he could be played in a biopic by Kurt Russell. I was intimidated by his gravitas — and his expressed distrust of Deadspin — but I was also giddy to be meeting him.
"Pittsburgh is one of the most underrated cities," he finally said, with the easy authority of someone who makes sweeping declarations for a living. I agreed and we stood in silence, each seeking eye contact with the overworked bartender.
After a few moments, he reconsidered his statement. "If I can ever get a few beers, that is."
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee: In press conferences both before and following the game, Washington coach Bruce Boudreau explained that while this might have been just a regular season game, it was undeniably more.
"In the end it's about two points, but let's make no mistake," he said. "We're all people that want the game of hockey to grow, and this is a big deal. If we can help build hockey in the US, and Canada and all over the world, and give these people a great show, then it's about much more than two points."
But Canadians have made it clear that they don't need the help, thankyouverymuch. Rifts have existed between American NHL teams and their Canadian counterparts for years — remember the currency famine of the late '90s? — and the hype around the Winter Classic, this year in particular, has seemed to touch nerves anew. I get it, I do. From the perspective of ever-loyal Canadian pucklovers, the U.S. is a bit like the prodigal son — showered with attention and lavished with praise just for deigning to finally show up.
(Hey, the fans-holding-up-cards Maple Leaf came out WAY better than Old Glory, so that's nice to see!)
I will not make an immature pun, I will not make an immature pun: In the days leading up to the game there were a noticeable number of Canuck noses up in the air, but per usual the snootiest was that belonging to Damien Cox, the hockey columnist for the Toronto Star and a sort of Canadian Buzz Bissinger who lacks both the endearing fascination with Alyssa Milano's Twitter account and the way with words.
Cox has long complained about
everything American teams dominating the NBC Winter Classic, never mind the small detail that Canadian markets wouldn't count for the all-important NBC ratings. "First NHL outdoor game was, of course, in Edmonton," he twittered a few days before the game. "But don't expect to hear that on Saturday. Canadian NHL teams need not apply." Never mind the small detail that literally the very first words out of NHL COO John Collins's mouth in his later press conference were that first NHL outdoor game was, of course, in Edmonton. On gameday Cox continued to sneer, retweeting anyone with a complaint about the game, the conditions, or the broadcast, and adding some gems of his own. "Outdoor concept should be used for all-star game," he wrote. "That and that only. Tonight proves it." Never mind the small detail that ... it didn't. Ratings were up 22 percent over last year, but we'll get to that in a sec.
Problems, we had a few. It was silly of Cox to come across as such a blanket spoilsport — the kid who licks the best slice of pizza so you won't take it, the loser in the game of SPUD who grabs the ball and runs home — because there was plenty to complain about without resorting to smarm. The game had a hard time developing a rhythm early on. The weather sucked at the start and got progressively worse. (In hindsight, a 4 p.m.-ish start would have gotten the game in with almost no rain.) By the third period the ice was pooling with rainwater, and rising winds forced the two teams to switch ends halfway through. [ADDED: Oops, I'm wrong. they would have switched regardless.] Slapshots and hockey stops kicked up plumes of water that were visible all the way from the press box. As Cox correctly pointed out, it wasn't a set of conditions that showcased anyone: Even Ovechkin clumsily tripped and fell on the blue line early on in the game instead of breaking through to the goal.
And while I wasn't really paying attention to the NBC broadcast, I heard plenty of complaints about NBC's over-reliance on cable cam angles and aerial blimp shots. This surprised me, given NBC Sports producer Sam Flood's comments to Greg Wyshynski: "I've always pushed back on having a cable cam at the Winter Classic, but for the first time I decided to do it, to add a twist to it. ... I'm probably going to play it as a reverse angle so it doesn't block the cameras as much. Use it as a replay device."
But in the first Winter Classic to have the cable cam in place, the network became a bit too enamored with its fancy new toy and tried to use it for way more than just replays. One of Eric Fehr's goals could only be seen by viewers from an angle Greg Wyshynski described as being "captured somewhere in low Earth orbit."
Shut up, Dan Shaughnessy: I don't want to waste precious energy telling you what you already know — that Dan Shaughnessy is a sports-hating leprechaun — but this column is so egregiously bad it makes me want to take back all my harsh words for Damien Cox. I mean, just for starters, the Buffalo snow-globe game that he holds in such high esteem had brittle, flaky ice conditions even worse than the one at Heinz Fie — oh god, never mind, I can't even. BRB, gonna go freebase some Klonopin.
Turn on, tune in, drop the puck: Despite the less-than-24-hour notice that the game was being pushed back from mid-day to a primetime hour already cluttered with eight other NHL games, the Winter Classic ratings were a big win for the league: 4.56 million people tuned in at the new night hour, a 22 percent increase from last year's game. It was the most-watched regular-season NHL game in 36 years. The game won the night in all the right advertising niches (question: have the words "18-49 demographic" ever NOT been preceded by the words "the coveted"?) and at this point, four of the five most-watched NHL regular-season broadcasts are the four Winter Classic games. In Pittsburgh, a ridiculous 42 percent of households with their TVs on were tuned into the game.
Even the games original 1-4 p.m. programming slot, which NBC instead filled with footage of past Winter Classics, picked up a 1.1 rating. (I have to wonder, though, how many people who didn't know the game had been postponed turned on NBC in the afternoon and were duped into thinking they were watching this year's game. I know at least one person who did! At 2:25 p.m. on Saturday I got a text from A.J.: "Wow. That seemed fun." LOL.) One of the only ratings results that surprised on the downside were those from the Washington area, where the game had a 7.6 rating and 13 percent share. Hey, maybe they were all at the game! But as the Washington Post's Dan Steinberg points out, Baltimore, despite not being a technical NHL city, sure loves it some Caps.
On the eve of the expiration of the NHL's current broadcasting contract with NBC, this growth is good news. (The ratings of NBC's special Feb. 20 Hockey Day In America broadcast from Chicago's Millennium Park will no doubt be closely watched for signs that interest has, or hasn't, held up.) But before we get too excited, consider next season's calendar wrinkle: New Year's Day, the day the NHL hopes to "own," will fall on a Sunday. Random bowl games are one thing, but NFL divisional matchup week is quite another.
Bonus programming fun fact: Per Steve Lepore: "The last time NHL regular season game aired in primetime, the game aired at 8:30, so that Sanford & Son could be its lead-in show."
Show me all your charms: Finally, I spent New Years at an NHL "Bash" that was actually way more fun than I had been prepared for. There were three highlights of the night: 1) meeting a very nice girl who works for a candy company and who told me that one of the Winter Classic Sweepstakes winners with whom she had to coordinate spends between three and four hours a day just entering sweepstakes after sweepstakes. I mean, I've heard about the crazy coupon people but this is a whole new level. Although I guess the effort paid off! 2) Asking the Stanley Cup caretaker dude (he was off duty and not wearing the suit and white gloves, which I found very unsettling) if anyone had fucked up the Cup worse than Mark Messier and the Rangers, and getting a big laugh and a big "NOPE" in response ("That's why I still have my job," he pointed out); and 3) finding out that the nice '80s cover band that I'd been casually enjoying all evening was actually ... Styx. I've now crossed "Spend New Year's Eve at a Styx Concert in Pittsburgh" off my bucket list.
It was to become a whole weekend of Styx, actually: the band played again, unannounced, during the Winter Classic the next day, and afterward I met the tour manager at the same hotel bar that contained Melrose and Hradek. He disappeared for a while and returned with a glossy Styx photo signed in silver glitter pen by everyone in the band. It was by far the best souvenir of the weekend.
Top photo courtesy clydeorama