Driving up to Pittsburgh on Friday afternoon was like driving 75 miles per hour down 7th Street. Mile upon mile of Capital clad cars honking “Let’s Go Caps!” amped the expectations of my brother and me for what we already thought would be a spectacular weekend. Giving those three BEEPs to Red Army passersby lifted me heading into enemy territory knowing full well I was going to spend New Years eve CouchSurfing with complete strangers.
CouchSurfing is a a bit of a social experiment best described as hospitality sharing. Essentially members just crash on another member’s couch, having previously contacted them through the website and arranged a stay. My brother Patrick is a member who has hosted and used the website extensively during a road trip to Texas in summer. Wearing a bright red Capitals shirt, I cautiously and anxiously knocked on the door to my host Amanda’s house in Upper Lawrenceville, Pittsburgh. She answered the door, looked down at the logo, and said, “Oh!” with some surprise (and I’m sure a little disgust), but the 24-pack of Peroni we bought for her mended any qualms quickly.
Patrick and I quickly settled in and explored the city by car, in particular stopping at Mt. Washington, an enormous overlook of Pittsburgh on the Monongahela River. For all the cracks I hear about Pittsburghers wanting to get the hell out of the city’s dreariness — and the fact that there are throngs of Steelers fans everywhere only aids that hypothesis — I can’t help but wonder why in the DC area there exists such a negative image of Steel City. Pittsburgh is gorgeous, even in its habitual cloudy gloom. Go to the top of Mt. Washington and please tell me if you think Pittsburgh is awful. While we were bound to run into hecklers at some point, and we did mostly around game time, the overwhelming majority of Pittsburghers treated my brother and me extremely well. On game day we were walking on South Side, an area lined with bars, and chatted with a few Pens’ fans in their early 20s who asked us if we were going to the game and saying that it was going to be awesome, holding their tongues on wishing us good luck.
But let’s skip back 18 hours. New Years Eve started off with some unpalatable Thai fish (I won’t mention the restaurant’s name) and ended with the some of the best guacamole I’ve ever tasted, homemade by our hostess. That is to say the night only got better as it went on. The characters that showed up to Amanda’s house for her New Years party were unique and like no one I had ever met. I chatted with Frank, a baker, about Crosby/Ovechkin for a while and Jordan, who works in Audio/Video at Heinz Field, gave us some insider information about Jimmy Fallon’s appearance among other tidbits. The only reason he as at the party was because of the game’s delay. Not only that, but I was still wearing that Caps shirt and no one wrote anything on my forehead after I officially surfed the couch. Later on in the evening Frank, Jordan, and Amanda collaboratively jammed with a xylophone, a flute and a beatbox machine creating an astoundingly creative and inspiring New Years anthem. I hope I made a good impression on them because they certainly did on me. I’m still a bit amazed by CouchSurfing and opening your home to strangers, but if I can do it in Pittsburgh on the eve of the Winter Classic, I feel anyone can do it anywhere, any time. It’s like-minded people doing something they like, meeting new folks.
Patrick and I headed to South Side at around 3 p.m. on 1/1/11, and a few hours later and several pints heavier made our way to the game by ferry in a group of eight, four Caps’ fans and four Pens’ fans. From our seats in Section 115, we could see about one-third of the rink and watched most of the game on the jumbotron. Still, it was totally worth it. The only other away game I have attended was at Bell Centre in Montreal, almost three years ago to the day, and while I don’t want to say the Classic surpassed it (Montreal’s hockey culture can’t be usurped), I will say this experience took hockey to another level even if I couldn’t see that much. On that January 5th, 2008, evening in Montreal, Mike Green scored in OT to land the Caps a 5-4 win. In that game it was nice to see the six other Caps fans cheering among 21,000. In this game it was incredible to see a Verizon Center-plus worth of Caps’ fans cheering. A lot has changed for this club in the past four seasons.
Two and a half hours later and regular season bragging rights in the bag for another month or so, we departed swiftly in a largely subdued crowd. Many Caps’ fans were silent outside Heinz Field after the game, possibly out of respect or fatigue, and it didn’t look like there was an atmosphere for celebration at all. While a historic first night Winter Classic was amazing, many seemed reluctant to celebrate late in the evening. If it had gone on at 1 p.m. as scheduled, perhaps the mood would have been more lively and festivities could have gone on well into the evening.
On a weekend I CouchSurfed for the first time, our beloved Red did a first in a ‘City of Firsts’ — win a game in a football stadium. For me though, the game is another game — two points. The Winter Classic is widely described as the second biggest stage in hockey, behind the playoffs. I wholeheartedly believe that the win showed our team is not relying merely on our big guns for the offensive push this season; that we can beat arguably the best team in the last four years on a big stage. We showed character New Years Day, and the Caps and their supporters can only hope that’s the last piece to the Stanley Cup puzzle.