PITTSBURGH, Pa. – Mike Knuble teed up a puck on a wooden platform a few centimetres above Heinz Field’s green grass and lofted a perfectly placed wrist shot between the uprights.
Call it the first goal by an NHL player on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ home turf. Or was it the first field goal?
On a postcard-perfect midsummer 30-degree day—one that was more than 25 degrees above the average high temperature for Jan. 1 in Pittsburgh—the sight of the Penguins’ Sidney Crosby, the Capitals’ Knuble and three other players exhibiting their skills Tuesday while previewing the NHL Winter Classic illustrated the not-uncomfortable juxtaposition between football and hockey.
As Penguins president David Morehouse said, Pittsburgh has long been known as a football town, but it’s now one of the best hockey towns, too. For one day, hockey will enjoy a change of venue as the Capitals and Penguins shift what might be the sport’s best rivalry—even NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said so—into one of the NFL’s best-known stadiums.
Somehow, everything seems to fit.
As the NHL drew up preliminary plans for a game that will showcase Crosby and Alex Ovechkin to the sport’s biggest single-game TV audience outside of the Stanley Cup finals, it realized a hockey rink fits perfectly for spectators between Heinz’s 20-yard lines. Center ice will be at the 50. There was no such comfortable fit when the Winter Classic rink was wedged into baseball’s Fenway Park and Wrigley Field the last two seasons.
Go outside and play, indeed.
“We’re going to have an unbelievable chance to make great memories in a special event like this,” Crosby said. “It seems like this is a great setup. I don’t know what the baseball stadiums were like, but this one seems like a pretty normal fit.”
Steelers president Art Rooney II already anticipates some players lobbying to attend the game before the team leaves for Cleveland and a regular season-ending game the following day. Maybe director of football operations Kevin Colbert will, too; he is one of the Penguins’ biggest fans.
Even the matchup seems perfectly suited to the one-game-can-mean-everything environment so prevalent in football. While Capitals vs. Penguins on New Year’s Day will be only one of 82 regular-season games for both teams, it will mean more than that.
For Ovechkin, who might be the NHL’s most skilled offensive talent but doesn’t yet have a Stanley Cup title to prove it, it’s a chance to upstage his biggest rival on Crosby’s home ice. For Crosby, it’s an opportunity to be the biggest star in not one but two Winter Classics; he won the first in Buffalo in 2008 with a shootout goal.
How big is the rivalry becoming? Penguins forward Max Talbot is glad Ovechkin wasn’t in Heinz Field with Capitals teammates Knuble and David Steckel because he “hates” him.
“It’s obviously a big rivalry,” Talbot said. “I remember this past season when I was hurt and watching a game against Washington (the Capitals’ 5-4 overtime win on Feb. 7) and it was probably the most intense regular-season game I’ve seen.”
The rivalry already is so good—the teams’ seven-game Eastern Conference playoff series two seasons ago was one of the NHL’s most compelling in years—Crosby doesn’t believe it will intensify by moving outdoors.
“I don’t think you can imagine it being more intense than it already is,” Crosby said. “It’s there.”
The Winter Classic will add one element to the rivalry, and it might be snow. As many as 32 centimetres have fallen on Pittsburgh on a single day during the first week of January, and the mean temperature is below zero. While some Januarys are milder than others, some are downright miserable.
“Maybe the first half it will be sunny, and the second half a storm will be coming in,” Knuble said. “That will make it fun for everybody. A little bit of chaos is pretty fun.”
Ticket prices and plans haven’t been announced, although Penguins season ticket-holders will have the chance to buy seats in the 65,500-seat stadium. The Capitals also will receive an allotment.
There will be two outdoor games this season. The Toronto Maple Leafs will visit the Flames on Feb. 20 in Calgary, the first outdoor game in Canada since 2003 when the Montreal Canadiens played the Oilers in Edmonton.