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.

flagsMany 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

penguins alternate jersey
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.