Plundering Western PA with a Reversal Invasion

It did not suck, slow shuffling out of Heinz Field late Saturday night, basking in the knowledge that Eric Fehr had fairly ruined the 2010 holidays for our friends in tattoos and mullets.

This was no mere spectacle two points tucked away before moving off to the next tilt; for an entire generation-plus of Capitals fans gathered in Pittsburgh for the Winter Classic, this was a mass and massive catharsis carried out under a football stadium’s lights before national television cameras from two countries. This Winter Classic was the ultimate reversal of long too lopsided bad karma. Our swagger late Saturday night onto raucous river ferries, our Redding-out of formerly Terrible Towel territory, seemed in its cumulative elation unprecedented.

It is a great thing, following your team on travel and experiencing triumph on the road. It is even greater when the destination and its success are found in the hostile environs of your most bitter foe. And so how to classify what Capitals’ fans experienced with this Winter Classic, with their remarkable pilgrimage? Bruce Boudreau, in the immediate afterglow of Winter Classic triumph, seemed to suggest that the moment was only moderately inferior of victory in the Stanley Cup finals. He might be right.

Maybe we should have been tipped off to this Reversal Invasion of Heinz Field. The stands at Kettler the past two weeks had been crammed as never before. There was in December new opinion polling showing a dramatic surge in regional interest in our Caps. Mr. Leonsis himself told television cameras in Pittsburgh this past weekend that he’s staring square at a hockey welcoming reception in Washington today whose numbers approach one million.

One million strong it sounded like when, during the Winter Classic National Anthem Saturday night, in perfect cacophonous unison the Red Army insurgents bellowed “Red” in synch with our national song’s lyrics. The hometown partisans weren’t prepared for that. Neither were Capitals’ players, who referenced the motivating moment in Saturday’s postgame. And it felt like there were a million Capitals’ car flags flapping proudly on the Pennsylvania Turnpike on the return ride home Sunday.

For far too long, our side has endured the weight of disproportionate defeat in this rivalry, and the Penguin partisans have ever been sharp-tongued in rude recitation of it. There remains still the large prize to secure before we can totally vanquish the ghosts of the grisly imbalance, but Saturday night’s triumph seemed to engineer a powerful reversal of momentum in this rivalry’s overall karma.

Reversal was the word of the weekend. First and foremost we witnessed a Reversal Invasion. We will never quite know the numbers of Saturday’s sides, but I’m not sure that matters. In Heinz Field’s massive upper decks virtually every other section was Redded Out, and below the sights were much the same. Capitals’ players talked of looking up and out and seeing — and hearing — thousands of supporters, of impossible volume, for the biggest regular season game in franchise history. Virtually all traveled considerable distance to get there, too.

It also did not suck being pulled up out of Steeler-yellow seats by the hands of Heaven on the occasions of the three Capitals scores Saturday night — and on a fourth, a victory icing scored by Ovi and queerly disallowed — while the hometown partisans sat stone-faced, unmoving, shell-shocked-and-agony-awed. The Red Army’s rise during the scores was exaggerated in its duration, unprecedented in its elation, irrationally exuberant, and as such a Red Terrible Towel unfurled against our neighbor enemies. Those Red Army goal risings exorcised a lot of agony from the past Saturday night.

Any loss in this rivalry is a searing, savage sting. What the Capitals and their supporters delivered New Years night with so much of hockey watching was an invader army’s flag-planting of powerful, conquering pain. Schadenfreude seems denotatively inadequate in describing the occasion.

You really do need to travel to Pittsburgh and immerse yourself in its sports culture to appreciate the deep and enduring and distinctive roots of this rivalry. Pens’ supporters well know their past heroes but also the names of ours. I found that intriguing, given how lopsided the postseason results between the clubs have been. But so many Capitals’ clubs which came up short against Pittsburgh exacted a heavy price in the struggles; I got the sense that this very knowledgeable-about-the-game Penguin fanbase bore a grudging respect for our guys from those struggles.

But the respective cultures of the two towns couldn’t be starker in contrast, and this surely is a catalyst in the rivalry’s intensity. The public address announcer acknowledged it before the puck dropped Saturday night — we were all gathered in “blue collar” America, whereas the guests in red back home labor in white. The Yankees and Red Sox know no such distinction.

photo by Mike Rucki

For most of 2010 I was a reluctant ticketed attendee for this game. Like Greg Wyshynski, I’ve come to view this game as a television event. But my father placed it on his personal bucket list, and how do you say no to your Old Man during the holidays? Boy I’m glad I didn’t. The rest of my days I will remember leaping up out of my seat at each Capitals’ Winter Classic score, high-fiving the stranger-relatives in red all around me, and especially focusing protracted laser beam looks of ‘Take that!’ at them.  I will remember forever too my peacock-pround prancing out of that football stadium, knowing our side had just taken a gigantic dump on the biggest party of Pittsburgh’s year, the stench of which is immortal.

Practically speaking, we cannot sway a game’s outcome with our show of support, even swollen to astounding size, but we can alter a rivalry’s culture. That is what Winter Classic weekend 2011 seemed to be about. We overran their bars and clogged their streets in our uniform, and we even Red-Rocked the big game’s national anthem.

We sent the hockey world quite a message this past weekend. Yes they knew we could sell out our rink in winning times, with star performers wearing our sweater. That’s nice. But now we must be known, too, as a super-sized traveling Red Army, armed with a passion to overtake mid-sized cities at special events. Ted Leonsis’ vision for hockey in Washington has been so much larger than anyone imagined possible or feasible; it wasn’t possible to be seated in Heinz Field Saturday night and not believe that our owner had created a marvel-worthy Red Menace Monster.

But the Red Army didn’t just buy lots of Winter Classic tickets — it seemed genetically disposed to invade . . . and conquer . . . and alter this rivalry’s one-sided invasion instincts.

‘Reversal Invasion’ was birthed into the Capitals’ lexicon this holiday weekend. Oh happy happy holidays.

There was a fight in the first period Saturday night and sizable snarl at game’s end. The Winter Classic is hockey’s only regular season game that ends with a handshake line. There wasn’t one Saturday night. Good. Seems to me Caps-Pens in its latest incarnation is right where it ought to be — but with momentum and swagger suddenly lodged in D.C.

This entry was posted in Bruce Boudreau, Morning cup-a-joe, National Hockey League, Pittsburgh Penguins, Reversal Invasion, Ted Leonsis, The Red Army, Washington Capitals, Washington the hockey town, Winter Classic 2011. Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Plundering Western PA with a Reversal Invasion

  1. penguin pete says:

    hate this article. can’t argue with it though. agreed on the handshake comment. great turnout for the caps fans, hope all travel was safe, as well as your experience at heinz field.

    wondering if you guys found the game hard to watch (in person)at first, i had trouble adjusting to the angles. took a while for me to get settled in.

    i’ve been to alot of sporting events, don’t know if a uniform has looked better than those caps unis. the red helmets almost looked fake they were so nice.

    had to chuckle(unfortunately) when i heard a caps fan spill out of the stadium and say the ground was wet with penguins fans tears.

    and i know you guys love ovi’s exuberance, and i think it’s good for the sport and you damn caps fans, but, the skating around with this stick in the air with 10 seconds left in the game felt like a bit much to me. “deion sanders-esque” if you will.

    maybe it’s just me.

    and maybe it’s just cold, wet, sour grapes…

  2. Pingback: RED ALERT: Caps and NHL win the Winter Classic « DC Pro Sports Report

  3. vt caps fan says:

    This trip reminded me of a BCS bowl game with an SEC team. And we were the SEC team. Every where you went you heard GO CAPS. Just like you would hear WAR EAGLE or Roll Tide as if you were playing Auburn or Bama. Every where we went we saw RED. Even after the game when we left the city we drove past the Wyndham hotel and you could see Caps jersey’s, banners, flags in the window of the hotel rooms. A truly awesome experience.

    I too shouted RED and for the first time, and I even did the ‘O’ during the anthem (I did it for B’more – as I also chanted that down the street on NYE – “Baltimore is better” – because it is).

    And to all the pitt fans who say it was just a game, you are right it was just another regular season game. That’s why pitt fans were so bitter after the game, cause you all wanted this one just as much as we did. We all wanted this one. Badly.

    Truly an unforgettable trip.


  4. JGP says:

    I was there, and it was awesome. I was shocked – though I probably shouldn’t have been – at how gracious the Pens fans were. Even the more profane things were said with a smile, not a sneer. Got lots of compliments on my Caps throwback too.

    The knock against DC, for years, has been that it’s not a great sports town because it’s a city of transients. When an administration changes, so do many of the residents. After this weekend, I hope that perception changes a little bit. Yeah, lots of the Caps fans there won’t remember Paul Mulvey or Rolf Edberg or even Mike Ridley or 50-goal scorer Dennis Maruk, but that’s okay. Because Ovie, Backstrom and Green don’t either – they just go out and win for today’s city, and today’s fans.

    Thanks for a hell of a weekend, Pittsburgh, and thanks to the Caps for kicking of 2011 with one of the most memorable nights of my life.

  5. Kevin H says:

    Great times, the memories of this will last a long time. I was also struck by the beer vendors being clad in RED winter jackets (epic!) and the fireworks being set off right after the final horn sounded. I guess the NHL orchestrated that? Not sure, but it was kind of funny, given the results for the home team.

    I’m very proud to be a Caps fan that made the journey to Pittsburgh. 24/7 will be one for the ages this Wednesday night…..

  6. mark miller says:

    With no handshake at the end of the regular season game on Saturday, a decades old game (I think it was a season ending home game against the Habs) remains the only game the Caps shook hands with opposing teams after the game. If my memory serves me correctly, it was the first time the Caps beats the Habs after, Good Lord, maybe 25 attempts. The Canadians were a class act and gave the then-long-suffering Caps and their fans a taste of what a playoff game felt like.

  7. Pingback: William World News » Capitals undefeated at Heinz Field and other Winter Classic observations

  8. kelly Chuba says:

    It did not suck, slow shuffling out of Heinz Field late Saturday night, basking in the knowledge that Eric Fehr had fairly ruined the 2010 holidays for our friends in tattoos and mullets.

    Great….great writing….

    And Pittsburgh was just awesome to us as we strode about all weekend in Red….

  9. Nate Hewitt says:

    Re: Penguin Pete – I was truly impressed with the graciousness of most fans, and our group had a blast. They know how to tailgate in the Steel City.

    Couple other notes: Yelling RED! and O! during the anthem is terrible, disrespectful and really shouldn’t be encouraged. Besides, ‘O!’ is a Baltimore Orioles thing, not a DC thing; its amazing how many people don’t know this. Instead, why don’t we sing the entire anthem in our nation’s capital? It would go a long way toward respect from visiting teams.

  10. I would just echo the reflection that Pittsburgh was a great and gracious host city, and that excepting a few standout sour experiences (isolated among mullets in the men’s room 5 minutes before puck-drop — not quite collegial there), the host fans, while still delivering clever and crude jibes, were indeed good-natured about it, and fun to be around.

  11. redegg says:

    Of course, anecdotal evidence is justt that, but how to explain the extent of the slurs (in regards to Ovi) WaPo’s Kareem El-Alaily heard in Pittsburgh? It would be impossible and ludicrous to blame the “blue collar” and “white collar” differences between DC and Pittsburgh, especially because Pittsburgh is filled with very bright, educated people, and certainly anyone who uses slurs is not very bright. Do people really throw compassion out the window when it comes to fanaticism, or are these individuals just choosing the Winter Classic to show their true colors (other than black and yellow)?

    Furthermore, is it still “in good fun” if these words are being tossed around?

    @ Nate Hewitt: I don’t do the “red” and “o” during the anthem, but I don’t think it’s a huge deal. Real disrespect, in my opinion, is when a team’s fans boo the other team’s national anthem, which is something I’ve seen once from fans of a certian Canadian team when that team has visited Verizon Center. Presumably, those people are Canadian.

  12. SpartyCuse says:

    Gack! I was in 220, but not in your picture! RATS!!!!!

  13. @ NATE: Agreed regarding the “O”. It’s been a pet peeve of mine for a *really* long time, though I suspect it will never completely go away:

    @ REDEGG: I don’t mind the “red” shout — I’m still not a fan, but it’s something uniquely Capitals. And yes, booing another nation’s anthem is 1,000 times worse, to be sure.

  14. @ SPARTY: Ha! Cool, wish I’d seen you there. That was a fun, fun section (if a bit damp in the third period!).

  15. Dawn says:

    i agree. With the exception of a small few, the Pens fans were very gracious hosts. It made the experience even more enjoyable. Being from Bmore, i too find it completely amazing and embarassing that people do the ‘O’ during the national anthem. i was stunned that it wasn’t only the DC fans but the Pittsburgh fans who yelled it on Saturday. i don’t find it disrespectful, really, just think it’s pretty rediculous…especailly when not in Bmore!!

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