10 Years After: A Fan’s Memory of the 2011 Winter Classic

Photo: Diane Doyle

On July 27, 2010, the NHL announced that the Pittsburgh Penguins would host the 2011 Bridgestone Winter Classic at Heinz Field, the home stadium of the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers, and that their opponent would be the Washington Capitals. In this recollection, NoVa Caps’ Diane Doyle takes a look back at her memories from attending the New Year’s big game.

When the announcement by the NHL was made, as a Capitals season ticket holder, I wondered if I’d be able to attend the game in person.  I reasoned that there would be nearly 50,000 seats available even after accounting for all of the Penguins’ season ticket holders and figured seats for sale would be offered to the Caps’ season ticket holders as well. Eventually, I received an email that season ticket holders could indeed purchase tickets (with seats pre-assigned) and I opted to do so. I eventually reserved a hotel in the Pittsburgh area, within a reasonable driving distance from Heinz Field.

On September 23 came the announcement that HBO’s “24/7” series would feature the Capitals and Penguins in a four-episode series as part of the leadup to the Winter Classic.

For background context, when the 2010-11 regular season started, the Capitals seemed to be continuing where they left off during the 2009-10 regular season, in that they were battling for supremacy in the Eastern Conference with the usual suspects in the Penguins and the Philadelphia Flyers. A new competitor in their division (the now-defunct Southeast Division), the Tampa Bay Lightning had also emerged as a contender. When November ended, the Capitals had the most points among NHL teams.

But then the long slump began, with a loss to the Dallas Stars, followed by four losses in a row during a homestand and two more losses after that, for a total of seven losses, with the losses all captured in excruciating detail in the first episode of “24/7”.  We saw the end of the slump and a few wins after that, restoring my faith that the slump was broken. We (my husband and I) also attended the game at Verizon Center (now Capital One Arena) against Pittsburgh, where we got our first look at the players in their Winter Classic uniforms; a game that was billed as a prelude to the Winter Classic. The game ended as a shootout loss and we hoped the Capitals would fare better in the Winter Classic than they did in that prelude game.

In preparation for attending the Classic, we had given each other Winter Classic jerseys as Christmas presents (I received an Alex Ovechkin jersey and I had given my husband a Nicklas Backstrom jersey, as those were the players we each had requested from one another). At that time, the jerseys we normally wore to games were an Alexander Semin (my preference) and Mike Green (my husband) sweater; however, we both decided to change it up for the Winter Classic. We decided to attend only the Winter Classic game itself and none of the other related festivities, which included the Alumni game between past stars of both the Penguins and Capitals, and a game featuring the Capitals’ American Hockey League affiliate Hershey Bears that was played at the Penguins’ regular home arena. While we generally enjoyed going to Alumni games, we figured one outdoor game would be enough during the cold, Pittsburgh winter.

Eventually, the time for us to leave for Pittsburgh arrived, a departure time around noon. We packed our Winter Classic jerseys and a Capitals-themed blanket, along with other belongings for an overnight trip. I recalled obsessively checking the weather forecast for Pittsburgh, which called for relatively warm weather for Pittsburgh in January with temperatures around 50 degrees Fahrenheit. However, it also called for rain to take place at game time. I recall now that the various weather websites were loath to update the hourly forecast for Pittsburgh. We left for Pittsburgh, not knowing if the game would be played at the originally-scheduled time or not, but determined nonetheless to see our team in action.

We took the nearly 4-5 hour-long drive from our home in Reston, Virginia, to our hotel in the Pittsburgh area, traversing via Route 15 in Maryland, Interstate 70 in Maryland, and then the Pennsylvania Turnpike. At one pit stop along the way on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, we discovered there were other Capitals fans making the same journey, so we knew we would not be alone in cheering on the Caps in the Steel City.

When we got to our hotel, the checkout clerk confirmed our reservation and said, “You’re staying one night, right?”, which preceded the following conversation:

I replied, “Unless the Winter Classic gets postponed due to rain”, to which the clerk replied, “It’s being delayed until 8:00 tomorrow.” In that case, I’ll be extending my reservation.”

We figured we would spend the ringing of the New Year 2011 in downtown Pittsburgh. We ate dinner at Tambellini’s, a local Italian restaurant in the area, complete with celebratory wine (On an NHL-related note, as far as I know, it has no connection with Steve Tambellini, the former NHL player who eventually became the Edmonton Oilers’ General Manager). Once finished with dinner, we wandered through downtown Pittsburgh to ring in the New Year of 2011 and were pleasantly surprised to see plenty of other Capitals fans taking in the sights.

The next day (New Year’s Day) was the day of the Winter Classic. Instead of being at Heinz Field at the originally-scheduled time of 1:00 PM, we spent time at a local shopping mall, getting provisions while rain poured outside. Once the weather cleared up, we drove to the center of Pittsburgh, where we grabbed some lunch and took in the sights and sounds of the city before game time. I can’t recall what I ate for lunch, but my husband bought one of the famous sandwiches from Primanti Brothers, a famous sandwich shop in Pittsburgh.

While in the city, I also paid for an ice skating session at an outdoor skating rink and we even managed to attend a Saturday evening church service at St. Mary of Mercy Church, so we would not have to fret about attending church on Sunday, when we would face an approximately, 4-5 hour drive home. We sat behind several Penguins fans who, after church, pointed us in the right direction on how to walk to Heinz Field for the Winter Classic itself.

The walk to the game was about a mile in length, and included traveling through Point State Park and a trip on the Three Rivers Heritage Trail, across the bridge across the Allegheny River not far from where it and the Monongahela River met to become the Ohio River. We followed the trail until reaching North Shore Drive, which led to Heinz Field. Fortunately, we had numerous other fans (donning both Penguins and Capitals gear) heading the same way, so we did not get lost.

We were pleasantly surprised to find plenty of Capitals fans in our section of seats. As seats were assigned (based on being as comparable to the season ticket locations), I struck up conversations with fellow fans as to where their regular ticket location at Verizon Center was. In many cases, they were on the opposite end of ours (as in behind the goalie on the “shoots twice” side; our own seats are located behind the goalie on the “defend twice” side).

Finally, the game began. The first period took place with no scoring, although the intensity was obvious.  Early in the second period, the Penguins broke through when Evgeni Malkin scored for the Penguins on a breakaway, right after a Capitals’ shot was saved by Marc-Andre Fleury. Fortunately, the Caps were able to score soon afterwards on a power play goal by Mike Knuble and Eric Fehr then put the Caps ahead by one, to make it 2-1 at the second intermission.

The weather turned out to be a major storyline for fans and players alike. Although the first two periods were relatively dry, the rain started coming down during the third period, in addition to falling temperatures. As the rains kept coming, one of our neighboring fans gave us some of their hand warmers to use, a gesture I appreciated greatly. We saw Fehr’s second goal during the third period as well, which gave the Capitals a much-needed insurance goal that ensured the score of 3-1 remained the final score.

As we exited the stadium, many jubilant Caps fans were chanting, “Let’s go, Caps!”, although somebody did voice concern that our fan base would not get too obnoxious. Admittedly, however, it did feel good to see the Penguins beaten on their home turf, so to speak.

We walked back over the bridge, retrieved our car from the parking garage in downtown Pittsburgh, and drove back to our hotel so we could get some sleep before heading home. I’m sure plenty of Capitals fans had poured into the local Pittsburgh bars to celebrate further, but we figured sleep would be a better use of our time.

We learned afterwards that nearly 30,000 Capitals fans had attended the Winter Classic, a number that included the approximately 20,000 season ticket holders, plus 10,000 additional fans who had obtained tickets on the secondary market. The NHL promised that the Capitals would some day get to host a Winter Classic in Washington, D.C. since the fan interest was clearly there (a promise that was kept four years later).

Further Reading
Washington Post: Winter Classic Coverage
NHL.Com: Lookback at 2011 Winter Classic

By Diane Doyle

About Diane Doyle

Been a Caps fan since November 1975 when attending a game with my then boyfriend and now husband.
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