Winter Classic shares New Year’s with new playoffs

Chicago Blackhawks right wing Ben Smith, second from left, and teammate left wing Daniel Carcillo, third from left, try to score on goalie Antti Raanta, right, of Finland, at Nationals Park, Wednesday, Dec. 31, 2014, during a team practice in preparation for the Winter Classic outdoor NHL hockey game to be held on New Year's Day. The Blackhawks will face off against the Washington Capitals. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

WASHINGTON (AP) — For the first time, the Winter Classic is sharing New Year’s Day with college football games that actually have something to do with the national championship.

Watch outdoor hockey in the afternoon and then go out for dinner? Or plan your day so that you’re home in time for the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl in the evening?

Brooks Laich thinks it should be a slam-dunk decision.

“This is one of my favorite catchphrases to use of all time: ‘Who cares? It’s college,'” the Washington Capitals defenseman said. “I hope the rest of America has the same mindset I do.”

The NHL’s annual showcase has been able to establish a beachhead on Jan. 1 in part because college football essentially abandoned what used to be its biggest day, populating it with run-of-the-mill bowl games and saving the big ones for later. This year, they’re trying to take it back, with the College Football Playoff semifinals highlighting the schedule.

Then again, there might be room for both. Now in its seventh year, the Classic has established enough of a presence to withstand a bit of competition.

“I’m a football fan like most people in this country,” Washington coach Barry Trotz said. “I think there’s a lot of football and it’s great, but you also get tired of it, too, and I think the Winter Classic is that one thing that’s different during this time of year that I think everybody gravitates to.”

It would help if the games don’t go head-to-head. That’s the plan, but the big ol’ sun might mess it up.

The 1 p.m. start Thursday between the Chicago Blackhawks and Washington Capitals at Nationals Park is in jeopardy because brilliant, cloudless skies are in the forecast. The sun would create a potentially dangerous glare, making the puck hard to see and causing the ice to get too soft. If faceoff is moved to, say, 3 p.m. — after the shadows from the stands have covered the rink — then the end of the game could conflict with the early minutes of the Rose Bowl.

A decision isn’t expected until shortly before the scheduled game time. There’s talk of switching sides halfway through the first period so that the glare would hamper both teams equally, and some players say they might emulate Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner, who wore sunglasses during Wednesday’s practice.

“Nobody wants to delay the game,” NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said Wednesday. “So if there’s any way we can avoid delaying the game, we’re going to avoid delaying the game.”

Almost a remarkable as the quick rise of the Winter Classic as a sporting event is the fact that the NHL has decided to play it in the nation’s capital.

Ten years ago, nobody would have called this a hockey town. Then came Alex Ovechkin, the team’s “Rock the Red” campaign and lots of winning. Tickets are no longer easy to get; every game is a sellout. There was even a large crowd at the optional skate on Tuesday morning at the team’s regular practice rink.

But it all started with Ovechkin. Without the three-time league MVP, there is no Winter Classic in D.C., no replica of the Capitol sitting in center field, no fake snow on the baseball diamond.

This week, the face of the franchise was uncharacteristically introspective about his career, talking about how things have changed since he arrived in 2005, and how he has evolved to focus more on team goals, including the pursuit of that elusive Stanley Cup title.

“I’m just growing up, getting mature, getting older,” the 29-year-old forward said. “I look at the game a different way right now.”

Teammates have noticed as well.

“Alex has won everything there is to win as an individual,” Laich said. “Your trophy case is full as an individual, but ultimately players are always judged by championships, and that’s the one thing that’s missing. For him, the realization of that, I think, is coming to the forefront.”

Depending on your point of view, the Classic is either nostalgia or novelty. For hockey-lifers from the North, it’s a reminder of games played on makeshift ice in freezing weather every night until called home for supper. Those memories are so etched in Laich’s mind that he recited every childhood friend who used to gather at the end of the street in the tiny town of Wawota, Saskatchewan, even creating a makeshift diagram of the houses at his locker as an illustration.

That’s an alien lifestyle for people from the South, where there are non-hockey fans who watch outdoor hockey once a year out of curiosity.

Either way, it’s a unique event.

“Last time, I don’t think I enjoyed the Winter Classic enough,” said Laich, who was on the Capitals team that won in the New Year’s Day rain in Pittsburgh in 2011. “I don’t think I took it in enough. I was just focused on winning the hockey game.

“This year, a little more composed, a little older, I really realize how lucky we are to have this game and how far this sport has come in D.C.”

___

Follow Joseph White on Twitter: http://twitter.com/JGWhiteAP

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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