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.
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.