Experiencing The Winter Classic Up Close

(The Rangers and Flyers line up for the National Anthem at the 2012 Winter Classic / Dan Sicignano)

For New York Rangers fans, the events of January 2, 2012 won’t soon be forgotten. For the first time in the team’s 86-year history, the Rangers took the ice in an official regular season game outdoors as they visited the Philadelphia Flyers at Citizens Bank Park in South Philadelphia, home of the National League’s Philadelphia Phillies.

And whether you watched in the United States on NBC, in Canada on CBC, or anywhere else in the world, the sheer drama of the closing minute surely was presented in incredible fashion into your respective living room, local bar or wherever else you were watching.

Yet the experience of actually being able to take this event in at the stadium in person was one that I personally consider one of the most exciting experiences of my entire life, especially witnessing Henrik Lundqvist’s stop of Danny Briere’s penalty shot in the dying seconds.

But there was a lot more to the weekend in Philadelphia than just the closing seconds of the game.

Saturday afternoon rolled around with the Rangers alumni taking the ice to do battle with the alumni of the hometown Flyers. Names such as Mark Messier, Brian Leetch, Adam Graves and Ron Duguay took the ice for the Blueshirts while John LeClair, Eric Lindros, Bobby Clarke and even Bernie Parent suited up for the..orange shirts.

The event was an enjoyable one, as expected. Despite the close quarters of 45,000 Flyers and Rangers fans sitting together for three hours, it was a laid back atmosphere. Many families who could not afford the absorbent ticket prices for Monday’s game seemed to have settled on attending this one instead.

There was John LeClair connecting with Eric Lindros, making his return to Philly for the first time since Scott Stevens knocked him out in Game 7 of the 2000 Eastern Conference Finals, for a goal that beat John Vanbiesbrouck. Despite his tribulations over his career, Lindros would be cheered loudly on this day.

The Flyers’ alumni won 3-1 with Shjon Podein and recent Hall of Fame inductee Mark Howe scoring their other goals while Glenn Anderson scored the Rangers’ lone tally. But Philadelphia’s star on this day was the 66-year old Parent, who strapped on the same exact pads he wore in leading the Flyers to back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1974 and 1975.

Parent dove across the ice in the first minute of the game to make a stop before “stoning” Duguay on a breakaway (let’s just say Duguay didn’t exactly deke on him). He exited the game after four minutes and six saves and received a standing ovation from the fans.

The highlight of this day for myself, however, was walking into the stadium for the first time to see it set up for hockey, rather than baseball.

“Holy crap!”

That’s all I had.

Having attended many Phillies games since the park’s opening in 2004, it was striking to see the rink, with last minute maintenance being done on the ice, stretching from first base to third. It was a scene that I had only witnessed on television up until that point.

“I’m actually here.”

Prior to both the Alumni Game and the Winter Classic, the NHL sponsored a block party that went parallel to the third base side of the ballpark. All day before each event, the area was packed to the brim with hockey fans taking in the unique atmosphere.

In addition to the mostly orange-clad crowd, many Rangers fans made the 90-minute trip down the Jersey Turnpike or Northeast Corridor to Philly, while fans wearing jerseys of teams such as the Oilers, Penguins, Devils, Capitals, Sabres and even Hartford Whalers made the trip to take in hockey’s marquee in-season event.

While kids fired slapshots in an inflatable bouncy castle-type building, adults packed the Molson Canadian Hockey House, downing cold beers while watching the NHL Network on-site broadcast a few hundred feet away.

There were large inflatable jerseys to pose with, free giveaways from the league’s corporate partners, and a stage set up at the end of the block with a band constantly playing popular music.

Then you enter the stadium.

You experience the crush of several thousand fans clamoring to be among the first to enter the gates for the event.

Then you enter onto the concourse to see children in Rangers and Flyers jerseys playing hockey on a tiny rink surrounded by Christmas trees in front of the larger one that would be used a little over an hour later.

You take note of the giant NBC and CBC signs all around the park. You catch sight of the NHL highlights playing on the large scoreboard with the Phillies logo on top of it.

“Oh my God, I’m actually here.”

And then it’s actually time for the players to hit the ice. Cloudy all day long, the sun breaks free just as the Rangers, in their cream-colored vintage-style jerseys, and the Flyers in their equally vintage-style orange, hit the ice for warmups.

There’s Marc Staal taking the ice for the first time since last season! Might he actually be playing? He’s wearing an “A”, so that must be the case. Not a bad way to mark his return.

After the smaller-than-normal zambonis come out following warmups, Philadelphia-based band The Roots performs on a stage strangely enough adorned with a Rangers logo.

Shortly thereafter, the Rangers take the ice to a chorus of mostly boos. This is Philly after all. Yet a subtle, though noticeable roar from the few thousand Rangers fans who made the trip also greets them.

The Flyers then take the ice. Then Patti Labelle sings the national anthem. Of course she does, it’s Philly after all.

But the Flyers usually break out the winning combo of Lauren Hart, daughter of legendary broadcaster Gene Hart, and a recording of Kate Smith, syncing to “God Bless America” for big games.

No “God Bless America”?

Advantage: Rangers.

Sure, they would perform it during the first intermission. But that’s not the same.

Not even close.

As jets roar over head, the game finally begins. From center field, my view was one that presented me with as decent a view as you could have from the 100-level. For Saturday’s Alumni Game, my seat in right field was highly obstructed and forced you to view most of the game on the massive scoreboard in left field. From center, all that was obstructed was the top part of the rink and the corners.

The traditional rowdiness of Flyers fans was there. But it was tempered a bit – you don’t want to be ejected from a game you paid $400 dollars to get into (though of course, a few of the locals were inebriated enough for that not to make a difference). For the fans of both teams, it was all about the actual experience of attending an event as unique as this.

The first period did not quite live up to expectations. As the sun went down and the teams felt each other out, few quality chances came, as well as zero goals. No score, and very little action, after one.

But that would change in the second.

There was Brayden Schenn, one of the players the Flyers dealt captain Mike Richards for back in June, scoring his first NHL goal. Then just two minutes later, there was Claude Giroux, one of the best scorers in the NHL, converting a pass from Max Talbot for a 2-0 Flyers lead.

The crowd went nuts. The huge liberty bell was ringing. The fans were getting rowdier. And the Rangers had not mounted any sort of chances whatsoever.

Things looked grim, to say the least.

Enter Mike Rupp.

With one quick shot 30 seconds after Giroux’s goal, the Rangers were back in it, and the visiting fans finally had something to cheer for.

And then the snow came. There was no snow in the forecast. But flurries encapsulated the stadium for a time in both the second period and during the second intermission as The Roots performed once again. An unexpected, yet welcome, addition to an event such as this.

The third period begins and the Rangers came out flying. And there’s Mike Rupp again, from an impossible angle. His second of the game! He had only one this season!

Suddenly, Flyers fans are panicking. “Why can’t we ever have a solid goalie?” one fan asks, as highly-paid Ilya Bryzgalov watches on from the bench.

Three minutes after Rupp ties it, Brad Richards comes through once again, as he has many times this season. Rangers lead.

Flyers fans? Silenced.

One of the sweetest sounds to the ear of any Rangers fan on earth, let alone in a stadium of 46,000.

The final ten minutes of the third seemed to go in slow motion. Chances on both sides, but the score remained 3-2 Rangers.

Then the final minute comes. The Flyers pull goalie Sergei Bobrovsky. Not long after that, the Rangers get a chance as Ryan Callahan streaks toward an empty net. But he’s hauled down.

“Goal! That should be a goal! He had a clear path to the net!”

It was not awarded a goal.

Instead, an extremely bizarre set of matching minors is called – Kimmo Timonen of the Flyers for interference, Callahan for….holding the stick?

Even from center field, with a quasi-obstructed view, there was no holding of the stick.

Flyers pull the goalie, 5 on 4 advantage, time ticking down.

Mad rush to the net, confusion. Bodies everywhere. Puck slides free. Whistle. What’s the call?

Early whistle?

No announcement.

Until all of a sudden, there’s Danny Briere skating to center ice.

“Penalty shot? Did they say the defenseman closed his hand on the puck?”

Apparently so, though there was never an announcement made in the stadium. Later replays would show that Ryan McDonagh swept the puck away, never once closing his hand on it.

Nevertheless, all of a sudden, there’s Briere flying in on Lundqvist. An entire stadium’s hearts beating out of their bundled-up chests with one play to determine the game.

Save by Lundqvist.

Yeah, we’ve seen that a few times before.

One last flurry ensued, but it was not enough. Rangers fans celebrate, first place is ours for another day.

Then there are fireworks, and a car being driven onto the ice and awarded to Callahan.

A fitting ending to a day that will be remembered for a long time. And for those lucky enough to be there, as myself, one that will never be forgotten.

Topics: Alumni Game, Brad Richards, Claude Giroux, Danny Briere, Henrik Lundqvist, Mike Rupp, Ryan Callahan, Winter Classic

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