The official temperature Tuesday may have been in the high 60s, but it felt 20 degrees hotter at Nats Park at midday, which is ironic, because the point of being there was to talk about the depths of winter—New Year’s Day 2015, to be precise, the date of the NHL Winter Classic. “One hundred days from now it’s going to be snowing here in DC,” was the optimistic forecast of Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis. That’s when Washington plays the Chicago Blackhawks on an outdoor ice rink in the middle of the baseball park. It’s also a dream come true for Leonsis. On January 1, 2008, at home watching the first Winter Classic, “I e-mailed the commissioner, ‘We want one here in Washington,’ ” he says.
The event had all the boosterism and good cheer you would expect from a coming together of major league sports officials, team owners, team stars, the corporate sponsor, union reps, network producers, fans, and the unveiling of the Winter Classic uniform.
And it’s fair to say that as much as Tuesday’s speeches and fanfare were about hockey, if you didn’t know better you might confuse the hubbub to be about baseball. Even the Blackhawks’ president got confused. “We look forward to playing the Nationals,” John McDonough declared, and then quickly corrected himself and changed it to “Capitals,” adding, “that’s the baseball fan in me.”
McDonough wasn’t alone in praising the National League East champion Nationals. It started right off with the master of ceremonies, John Walton, who said, “While we’re talking hockey today, we hope there’s baseball being played here till the end of October.” There was polite applause from the hockey fans sitting in the stands, a few of them wearing winter hats. Their applause paled when compared to the enthusiasm they show for a Capitals “Score!”
There were a lot of participants in the program (by our count about 20), and those who were tapped to speak (most of them) gave praise or nodded to members of the Nationals organization, including general manager Mike Rizzo (whose bald pate will likely have some sunburn by game time Tuesday evening) and various members of the Lerner family, who own the baseball team and the ballpark.
Mark Lerner talked about the advantages of having the hockey classic at Nats Park, which he called “one of the most unique backdrops of any sports venue in the United States.” DC Mayor Vincent Gray described himself as an “unabashed homey,” which could apply equally to the Caps, Nats, Wizards, and DC United (but not that other team). Gray called Leonsis the “greatest owner in the nation of any sports team.” Leonsis beamed.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, of course, focused on the Winter Classic, declaring that the Washington game will take the event to “new heights.” It will also coincide with the Caps’ 40th-anniversary season. “The event will be sold out, if it’s not already,” he said. We checked on the Caps website, and yes, there are still tickets for sale. But remember: It will be winter.