Following the Washington Capitals' dramatic 3-2 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks in the 2014 NHL Winter Classic at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C., Caps owner Ted Leonsis, clad in the puffiest of down coats, addressed the media in the Nationals' clubhouse his team had taken over.
"What do you say to the notion that there has been a lack of buzz surrounding this Winter Classic?" one reporter asked.
"Some little kid wrote that?" Leonsis quipped. "Whoever wrote that, they're acting like kids."
However childish Leonsis may think the notion of buzz is, much was made in the weeks leading up to the NHL's seventh Winter Classic about a distinct lack of hype. And when ratings numbers surfaced on Friday morning, that lack of national interest was confirmed. The game earned a 2.3 national rating, which is the lowest yet for a Winter Classic.
Granted, when the NHL held its first Winter Classic at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, N.Y., in 2008, college football had ceded some ground in the New Year's Day sports landscape, with many bowl games moving to different dates. That made hockey's coldest game the hottest thing on TV. This year, though, with the first-ever College Football Playoff taking place on New Year's Day, the NHL once again had some viewing competition, and was clearly fighting for attention in the national media as Jan. 1 approached. For some comparison, the Rose Bowl earned a 15.5 rating, the Sugar Bowl a 15.3.
Locally, ratings were slightly higher. According to NBC, the top Winter Classic market was Chicago, with an 11.4 household rating. Buffalo oddly came in ahead of Washington, D.C., with a 6.4 to D.C.'s 5.7.
D.C., though, was certainly buzzing, and on the ground, the NHL's jewel event was no less than its typical stunning self. Nationals Park was dressed to the nines. A giant red star filled with blown snow covered the field. A replica of the Capitol building stood in center field, fronted by a frozen "reflecting pool" on which local youth players from the Fort Dupont Ice Hockey Club and Rooftop Hockey League skated throughout the afternoon. The NHL booked a steady stream of entertainment, including Billy Idol, Gavin DeGraw, Lee Greenwood and the U.S. Army Chorus.
Maybe to a national TV audience the novelty has worn off. This was the NHL's seventh Winter Classic, and there were six total outdoor games played last year. But an ice rink in a ballpark is the hockey equivalent of Field of Dreams; if you build it, they will come.
The event was sold out weeks ahead of time, and the 42,832 red-clad folks who filled the ballpark seemed decidedly full of hype. When the Caps' Troy Brouwer broke a 2-2 tie with 12.9 seconds left in the third period, the atmosphere went from electric to chaotic; it felt more like a sudden-death playoff game-ending goal than one that just clinched a regular season victory.
"To be honest, the game didn't feel like a regular season game at all," said Caps forward Brooks Laich. "It felt a lot more special and a lot more important. When Brow scored, the bench just erupted and the fans erupted and all we could think was, OK, just hang on for 13 seconds. Just fight and die to win this hockey game; we have to win this game. We're really happy we could give the fans a win."
Caps fans were seemingly thrilled with the event. Dan Steinberg of the Washington Post tweeted a picture of the Nats' Park concourse moments before puck drop. It was desolate; everyone was already in their seats. A $32 Reebok t-shirt featuring six skating presidents sold out before the game even started. The cheapest-available standing-room-only tickets available on Stubhub on game day cost $350.
"I couldn't wait for this game to come to Washington," said Nick Albicocco of Arlington, Virginia. "I've seen it on TV so many times now but there's nothing like being here in person. Maybe the buzz wasn't so big nationally, but everyone in DC has been really excited."
The Caps played in the 2011 Winter Classic at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, but having the game in their home city was a different experience altogether. Even just being in the Nationals' clubhouse wowed team defenseman Mike Green.
"Have you seen this place?" he marveled. "It's huge."
So, too, has been the impact of the Winter Classic on the NHL. The idea of an outdoor game was a stroke of brilliance that took a foundering league that lost an entire season to a lockout a decade ago and helped turn it into a nearly $4 billion entity; that's double what the NHL was worth prior to the 2004-2005 work stoppage. Twice, the Winter Classic has been the Sports Business Journal's Event of the Year.
But in the U.S., hockey will never win a fight against college football, and the NHL was sweating as sun glare forced a delay of the Winter Classic start time this year, pushing the finish of the game closer to the start of the Rose Bowl.
Football will always win on TV. But in person, the NHL's outdoor games are events unlike any other. Last New Year's Day, 105,000 hockey fans packed Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor to see the Maple Leafs play the Detroit Red Wings. For comparison, the Rose Bowl seats just north of 92,000.
There's at least one report that next year's Winter Classic will feature the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass., which has a capacity of over 68,000. No doubt, the seats will be filled. Folks at home will tune in on TV. And if there are football games on too, so be it. Hockey fans love hockey. There may not be as many of them as there are baseball or football fans, but to them, New Year's Day will always be a great day for hockey.