Penguins and Capitals at Heinz Field First Look: 2011 Winter Classic

heinz field hockey

Heinz (brunkfordbraun/Flickr)

Following the first Winter Classic in 2008 which saw Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins battle the Buffalo Sabres, an eventual Crosby vs. Ovechkin matchup felt inevitable.  The only scenario that could top the too-good-to-be-true Crosby shootout winner amidst the snowflakes would have to feature the NHL’s hottest rivalry and two biggest stars facing off.

Some felt Beaver Stadium at Penn State University made sense as a ‘neutral site’, but without a large city to host the slew of out-of-towners, Happy Valley didn’t fit the bill.  Washington DC has a brand new baseball stadium, but hosting the game in the nation’s capital makes weather a greater factor and like last year pushes the game out of driving distance for most fans in the Midwestern US.  The limited capacity of a baseball stadium also pushed the beautiful PNC Park in Pittsburgh out of the running.

What was left: Heinz Field.  The home of the Pittsburgh Steelers opened in August of 2001 and seats over 65,000 fans.  With the Steelers 2010 schedule structured to accommodate the construction and teardown of the outdoor rink, crews from Reebok and others had been checking out the site prior to a formal announcement.  According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

The Penguins will face Washington in the NHL’s 2011 Winter Classic Jan. 1 at Heinz Field.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman is expected to make a formal announcement about that, along with several other high-profile league events, during a press conference in Chicago Friday.

There will undoubtedly be plenty of analysis and hoopla leading up to the game seven months from now, with more Crosby and Ovechkin storylines than most true hockey fans can stomach.  With that in mind, here are two developments you haven’t heard about yet, but soon will.

Wind-ter Classic?

If there’s two things to know about football at Heinz Field, it’s that the playing surface can be a disaster and the wind gives kickers nightmares. It typically takes two weeks to prep the outdoor rink, but despite only have nine days to work with the field itself shouldn’t be an issue for the Winter Classic.  The wind is a different story.

Many thought the wind would play a major role in the 2009 Winter Classic at Wrigley, but from player reactions and my experience at the game, it didn’t seem to be much of a factor.  One big difference between Wrigley and Heinz Field is wind direction.  With the Wrigley setup, when the “wind is blowing out to right”, it’s coming across the rink and is probably hardly noticeable by players.

In the top photo, you’ll notice that at Heinz Field the south end of the stadium is almost entirely open looking out onto the river. The winds that whip in through the open end on a cold January afternoon could add an element to the Winter Classic that we haven’t really seen in the first three installments. The teams will switch directions halfway through the third period, but don’t be surprised when a sulking Ovechkin speaks to the media after the game and says “Don’t want to make excuse, but wind not easy to make comeback.”

A Golden Touch

New Alternate Jersey?

Another obnoxious unique aspect of Heinz Field is that all 65,000 seats are bright gold. When Steelers fans dressed in black jerseys fill the seats, it loses some of it’s luster – but what about a ‘Gold Out’?

In recent seasons, many teams have jumped on the idea having fans dress in the same color for the playoffs.  Oftentimes, the color matches the team’s home jersey, but the Penguins don’t have a gold jersey…yet.

Most reports indicate the baby-blue throwback jerseys the Penguins debuted at the first Winter Classic won’t be used this season which opens the door for Reebok to design a new alternate jersey.  While the Pensburgh blog thinks blue will still be in the mix, I’ve always had a hunch that the team would want to change it up and go gold.  Fans dressed in gold, sitting in gold seats, drinking curiously golden Iron City beer, behind players donning new gold jerseys will be the lasting image of the 2011 Winter Classic.

Mike Colligan

Mike Colligan

Managing Editor
Mike Colligan is an NHL analyst at Forbes SportsMoney and The Hockey Writers. Email: MJColligan@gmail.com
Mike Colligan

6 Comments

  1. Pingback: 2011 Winter Classic: Why Pittsburgh and Washington So Soon? | The Hockey Writers

  2. well steve, who is your team? Who do you think we should be “fed?” The Predators? Because I know when I think Nashville I think hockey! Try again. How about the Coyotes? Hockey in the desert? Get real! And nice original non-offensive politically-correct animal name! Was an exciting playoff round, now go back to Winnipeg. Maybe the Atlanta Thrashers?! Another dumb name and rediculious idea. Hockey in Atlanta? Just look at the demographics. How about the Florida panthers?! Not offending anyone with that team name either. Another original! ‘Cause I know when I think ice and snow i think Panthers and Coyotes in a Winter Classic either in the desert or at the beach! Maybe they can build an outdoor rink in Key West? Or maybe we can set a new attendence record and play the WC in Mexico City! Oh, and I just can’t wait ’til the NY Rangers WC game is played at Yankees stadium! Just can’t get enough of the Yankees who buy all their players. Not to mention what a hard core sport baseball is! The Rangers are like the Mets, been bringing in marquee players for years and still it gets them nowhere. At least its in a northern city but when the WC happens there, play it at the Giants/Jets stadium. All this baseball nostalgia has no place in hockey and you simply cant reach the magnitude of the crowd and atmosphere in a football stadium. Not that I’d suggest playing the WC in Dallas’ Cowboys stadium. Another stupid place to have ice hockey, Dallas TEXAS! Screw Jerry Jones and the Cowboys! So that narrows it down somewhat. The NHL isnt going to showcase many teams simply because they arent among the league’s top teams yet so Colorado and Minnesota, although I’d really enjoy it, will have to wait. The battle of Ontario would be aweome but U.S. viewers simply won’t watch. The Leafs are hard to watch as it is. The next best thing would be to have a Canadian team as an opponent. Don’t be surprized if we see that next year and for the next two or three years. It’s the only original idea left and would satisfy both Canadian and US markets as well as maintain their ratings. Wouldnt mind an outdoor all-star game but that game doesnt count so bad idea for a WC. So the choice this coming year is as obvious as knowing we will see the Rangers play at Yankee stadium (although that may have to wait 5 years because of their 4-year deal to have college bowl games there,otherwise it’s Caps at NYR in 2011). The Pens and Caps are Cup contenders as well. The Sharks are too but sorry, i know there are good snow sports in the mountains out there but, when I think winter wonder land California doesn’t come to mind (neither do sharks and ducks or glittery purple jerseys). The Winter Classic is about tradition and hockey’s roots which began outside on naturally frozen ponds and lakes, not deserts and palm trees. So Steve, who is your team and please feel free to make an arguement for them. By the, i was at the WC in Buffalo. Everyone tailgated like we were going into a football game but it was hockey! Was frickn’ awesome! I can’t wait to do that in Pittsburgh! (you should know I am a Pens fan) I really thought Chicago should have played the WC at Soldier Field. Putting the WC back in a football staduim was the right thing to do. I guess that leaves the Blues out the mix, wouldn’t ya say, Steve?

  3. Karl, I think you’re on the right track, but there are a few more elements to it. With no leverage to work with coming out of the lockout, the NHL was forced to move to a sports-starved US station in Versus for a 3-year $200m contract (which ESPN was not willing to match). That contract was recently extended through the end of next season.

    In an effort to get some games onto a major network, the NHL worked out a deal with NBC where NBC would not pay a dollar to the league and would merely share advertising revenues. That contract also expires at the end of next season. A major league like the NHL not receiving money for television rights is unheard of – and needs to change for the financial health of the league.

    In a perfect world, I don’t think Bettman wanted to recycle the Penguins in the Winter Classic this soon, but he had to. He needs all the ammo he can get heading into the next round of TV contract negotiations and we all know the Penguins-Capitals matchup will draw (and has drawn) the best ratings of any other US matchup. It’s essentially an all-in bet.

    Will it offend the diehard hockey fans sick of hearing about Crosby? Maybe. Will they not tune into the game because of this? I doubt it. (Caps-Pens were the highest rate game on NBC this season again) To me it’s an easy sacrifice that had to be made by the league and Bettman in order to attempt to grow the league.

  4. I’m just wondering (and really, kind of hoping) that all the promotions and advertisements for the game will actually push people away. Like I said- the NHL has been forcing Pittsburgh down our throats for the past few years, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the entire thing backfires. It would be a great wake up call to the NHL suits.

  5. It’s an interesting point, Steve. I’m assuming NBC will be carrying the Classic again, so they have to have some input on the teams. I’d like to know how much input. Given the fact that their NHL time slot is usually noon-1 pm eastern, that takes out the possibility of a western team playing at home. Does NBC have the option of scheduling a late afternoon game? Maybe, possibly. I don’t know, but New Years is college football bowl game time, and NBC might be tied to committments with a bowl. Again, I don’t know, just thinking aloud. I would love it if TSN put on their own. Lord knows they would air any team, any time of day. Get another Edmonton game outdoors. Let’s see Montreal and Toronto at the Rogers Centre. But as far as NBC goes, I think they hold the upper hand over the NHL.

    The cold truth is that Crosby and Ovechkin bring in the casual fans, more than any other team or name can do. And when you’re talking about the NHL’s newest marquee event, ratings matter. I hate it. I wish that the NHL on NBC didn’t mean a Penguins, Caps, Red Wings, or Rangers game every week. I wish they could get some western teams involved, but apart from a 10 am PT game, I don’t see it happening. Whether or not the NHL is catering to NBC, or NBC is simply choosing the teams it wants to, I don’t know.

  6. I personally believe that this Winter Classic is a slap in the face to the fans of the other 28 teams in the league. The NHL needs to know that we’re so sick and tired of having Pittsburgh, the Penguins, and Crosby shoved down our throats. What is the NHL’s tagline? “Hockey is for everyone”? Seems to me like it’s turning into
    “Hockey is for Penguins fans”.

    I won’t watch it.

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