As Craig Custance and I discussed on our podcast Tuesday, The NHL Winter Classic feels like nothing so much as a wedding. There's almost a full year of build-up and planning, of finding vendors and making the most minute of arrangements. Check in at the hotel and you're given a room key card festooned with the Classic's logo, not unlike when the concierge hands over one of those welcome goody bags stamped with the bride and groom's names. There are days of activity-filled buildup, and just as we've all been to rehearsal dinners that are just as (or more!) fun than the actual wedding, some of these preludes, like this year's Alumni Game, are truly memorable even on their own.
And then, of course, it's the Big Day and everything happens so fast and suddenly it's all over and where did all that time go? And you feel a combination of relieved, wistful, energized, a little empty inside, and also really hungover as you rush to make it to that early morning train the next day. With all that in mind, here are 12 quick thoughts from the 2012 Winter Classic extravaganza, in roughly chronological order. I'll have more to say in my column in a few days, but consider this the equivalent of the recap over (a really really late) brunch.
The Alumni Game
- As I mentioned, this year's Alumni Game was one of the biggest highlights of the whole weekend. More than 40,000 fans packed Citizens Bank Park and the atmosphere was legitimately electric, with one of the goose-bumpsiest moments being when Eric Lindros, who left Philadelphia in 2001 in a vortex of animosity, returned to a deafening they're-on-their-feet roar -- the loudest given to any Flyer alum. The support only grew more frenzied when he set up his once-Legion of Doom linemate John LeClair for the game's first goal that made you forget for a moment that it wasn't 1995. (The third member of that line, Mikael Renberg, was busy working and sadly unable to attend.)
- During these player introductions, which were quite the spectacle -- pyrotechnics and a marching band were involved -- the Philly-heavy crowd mostly booed the Rangers, Darius Kasparaitis in particular. But when the Blueshirts' Ron Duguay skated out with his Bon Jovi visage, the crowd, clearly impressed, couldn't decide how to react. It settled on whistling for him, which was totally perfect. (Duguay later returned the favor when he went in on a breakaway against 66-year-old Bernie Parent and flipped him a savable softie, much to the delight of the fans.)
- The game also included an inspiring performance by goalie Dan Blackburn, who at only 28 years old isn't your typical "alum." Once a tenth overall first-round draft pick, Blackburn was forced to retire early after suffering nerve damage to his shoulder while lifting weights. Seeing him back in a Rangers jersey was bittersweet. "There's a lot of far bigger names in this dressing room than I," he said in the locker room after the game, as those very names walked around holding their jerseys for everyone to sign like a high school yearbook. (I really hope someone wrote "Stay cool!") "For me to get the call and be able to come play with these great guys and a lot of legends was a great honor and a lot of fun. Probably one of the highlights of my career, actually."
- Other Alumni Game observations: Mark Messier was asked if he'd trade the Rangers' alumni loss for a win in the big game on Monday. "I'll never trade a loss for anything," he said … Shjon Podein spoke about how much he loved Philadelphia's fans. "They're unbelievable," he said. "Passionate, harsh, unforgiving, but really nice … If you give them everything you've got, they respect you."…Stephane Matteau told me that he had been incredibly nervous for the game. Why? He hadn't practiced or trained a lick. Neither had Mark Howe … Jeremy Roenick agreed that the game could include some All-Broadcaster lines. The Flyers team featured him and Ron Hextall, among others, while the Rangers squad had Dave Maloney, Nick Kypreos, Brian Leetch, and Duguay … Most players spoke about how much it meant for them that their children, many of whom had once been too young to ever really understand that daddy was a good hockey player, to see them out on the ice.
The Teams Practice
- The next day was dominated by Ilya Bryzgalov, who sauntered around the locker room shirtless after the Flyers' practice (at a very Dry Island-y 9 a.m. on New Years' Day) while a scrum of reporters and news crews eagerly gathered around him to hear what bon mots he had this time. After pulling on a Flyers shirt so he could go in front of the cameras -- "NHL rules," he explained -- he gave the crowd what it wanted and then some. I'll have much more to say on this later this week, but you can read the whole crazy exchange with reporters here. Suffice to say, we've now got a goaltender issue in Philadelphia, and also, today the sun rose in the east.
- The Rangers' practice was far less eventful, consisting mostly of idle speculation over whether Marc Staal would be playing in his first game of the season. (He'd been out all year with a concussion.) Reporters squinted every time he skated by, searching for clues. When he zipped by smoothly: "I think he's definitely going tomorrow." A slight grimace, or a puck bouncing over his stick: "No way does he play." While John Tortorella said on Sunday that "nothing has changed" with Staal's condition, the next morning he announced that he'd be making his return to the lineup, just as his brother Jordan did last year when Pittsburgh hosted the outdoor game. (This caused a medley of halfhearted jokes about the Carolina Hurricanes playing in the next Classic, because Staal brother jokes are like catnip to hockey writers.)
The Big Day
- The most striking image as I walked around the parking lot tailgates and the NHL's official "Spectator Plaza" on the day of the Winter Classic was not the throngs of drunken fans who had arrived at 9 a.m., nor the kids playing street hockey and wearing little Jagr jerseys, nor the heavily-sponsored food stands and game booths. It was the hundred-plus people waiting just to get into an official merchandise tent. They snaked back and forth like an amusement park line, already wearing NHL gear but preparing to get more. I heard that they sold completely out of Giroux jerseys. Cha-ching, NHL!
- Hockey has no halftime, but it sure felt like the game was split into two. No goals were scored for all of the first period and the first twelve minutes of the second — and then five goals were knocked in after that. The Flyers' Brayden Schenn, a highly-touted 20-year-old who arrived to the team as part of the Mike Richards trade but has battled one injury after another thus far this season, scored his first NHL goal in one of the more memorable ways possible: in front of a sellout crowd of 46,967 looking for any excuse to explode. Also exploding: every synapse inside Schenn's head. "When it went in I kind of almost blacked out I got so excited," he said.
- Philly's other goal was a beauty by Claude Giroux, who showed why he is one of the league's fastest-rising stars. A day before the game Flyers coach Peter Laviolette had this to say about Giroux and his usual linemate, Jaromir Jagr: "Everyone thinks about the game the same way. And a select few think about the game a different way … I think Jagr and Giroux think on the same level." Jagr began the game with one of his patented split-the-D moves, but barely returned after that with an injury. (He is now said to be out 7 to 10 days.)
- While Jagr sat on the bench, the Rangers' Mike Rupp gave him a mocking tribute, mimicking his trademark post-goal salute when he scored to narrow the game to 2-1. He said afterward that the move was not planned: "I was just kind of excited in the moment." Asked about it, Jagr drolly remarked that maybe that's how Rupp always celebrates. "He doesn't score many goals," he added. Rupp scored again early in the third period to tie the game, a rare offensive outing for a grinder whom Tortorella repeatedly described as a locker room "glue guy" throughout the weekend. Torts' expression when talking about Rupp took on a visibly dreamy haze, by the way. He's kind of in love.
- The end of the game was a wacky sequence of events that left conspiracy theorists wondering if the fix was in. Tortorella called the officiating "disgusting" and wondered whether NBC had a secret meeting with the officials. I prefer the theory that NHL commissioner Gary Bettman had some sort of batphone. A series of penalties (and penalties not called) culminated in a ruling that the Rangers' Ryan McDonagh had covered the puck in the crease, necessitating a penalty shot with 20 seconds left in the game that would give the Flyers a chance to send things to overtime. Laviolette opted to send out Danny Briere instead of Giroux, explaining later that he sees Briere as more of a pure scorer in that situation. (Incidentally, it was Briere and Giroux who both scored shootout goals on Henrik Lundqvist in the winner-take-all last game of the 2010 season that sent the Flyers to the playoffs -- and ultimately the Stanley Cup Finals -- and the Rangers home.) This time Lundqvist stopped Briere, who wrote about the experience on NHL.com.
- Brad Richards scored his sixth game-winning goal this season (and his second in a game against the Flyers) when he sniped a rebound from the right side of the slot. One of his other game winners, which came with 0.1 seconds left in a game against Phoenix, was featured in the second episode of HBO's 24/7. In the show, 10-year-old Liam Traynor, who is confined to a wheelchair by cerebral palsy but has become a close friend of Tortorella and many of the players, is shown celebrating the goal (way past his bedtime.) Liam was given tickets to the Winter Classic -- "We could barely make it through the parking lot!" said his delighted mother, referring to her son's newfound celebrity -- and came into the Rangers locker room after the game, where he and his family chatted it up with a number of players, including Richards. "You're a movie star now!" Richards said to the beaming boy. "You watched that goal, eh? You stayed up late for that one. But hey, we made sure it was worth it."
Katie Baker is a staff writer for Grantland. Follow her on Twitter @KatieBakes
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