Hockey gods smile on Fenway
An expected fight for first in the East will instead be a match of desperate teams
Light snow at Thursday practice brought out the kid in the Bruins and Flyers
Flyer Simon Gagne suggests Habs vs. Avs (ex-Nordiques) in Quebec next year
BOSTON -- Three months ago, this Winter Classic matchup between the Boston Bruins and the Philadelphia Flyers was supposed to be a fight for first place in the Eastern Conference. Things, alas, don't always go as planned.
Well, no, scratch that.
When it comes to the NHL's annual outdoor game, they actually do.
In a picturesque sight at Major League Baseball's oldest stadium, the Bruins emerged from the tunnel at Fenway Park on Thursday morning to see snow flurries floating down from the sky. "It was everything you could've asked for walking out," said Bruins winger Mark Recchi. "It was perfect. It really was."
It was as if the scene were made for TV, which, if you've seen the NBC commercials pumping this New Year's Day game, it basically was. Maybe it was the dusting of snow on the ice, or the makeshift rink under the winter sky, but the scene brought out the kid in every player.
"Yeah, even Recchi," center David Krejci quipped about his 41-year-old teammate.
The practice was barely that, a light-hearted affair for the players to just get a sense of the rink, see how the boards respond, test the angles, and the like. Bruins captain Zdeno Chara spied a couple of kids, their noses pressed against the glass, watching in awe. With his long stick, the massive defenseman picked up some snow on his blade and dumped it on them over the glass in a playful moment during team drills. A handful of players picked up shovels and went from professional athletes to manual snowplows, a nostalgic memory for those who used to shovel out a rectangular "rink" on their childhood ponds.
When the Flyers took the ice a few hours later, the snow had lightened to match the mood. Players shot snow at each other; goalie Brian Boucher donned a hat (or a toque, in Canadian) over his helmet to stay warm; Scott Hartnell got nailed by a few snowballs. The day was just plain fun for a Flyers team that hasn't had too much of that in the last few weeks.
After getting off to a fast 12-5-0 start, the Flyers imploded, losing 10 of their next 12 games. The slide led to a coaching change and rumors of turmoil in the locker room. The team plummeted out of the playoff picture, and the callous -- albeit passionate -- Philadelphia fans even booed them off the ice in a 4-1 loss to Florida earlier this month.
Since then, management addressed the team about problems that had manifested on the ice. Among other things, GM Paul Holmgren told his players that this was it. He wasn't going to trade anyone, and this was the group they made, the group they believed in.
"The biggest thing is that we have a coach and a GM that believes in the guys in the room, and we should believe in each other," defenseman Matt Carle says. "That kind of helped us turn the corner."
The Flyers have picked up four straight wins since the Panthers game, and climbed back into eighth place, but just barely. The Bruins, meanwhile, are sitting in the middle of the pack, but there isn't a player who doesn't wish they were higher. What that sets up is a game that means something, though not what we all thought it would mean back in October.
It means that two desperate teams will show up at Fenway on Friday, and the NHL will get a good, mean game -- so long as the conditions hold up. The snow, while charming for a practice, could in fact present some really interesting problems in a game situation with two points on the line. Skating around, some visor-less players got a faceful of flurries. Players with visors saw a bit more precipitation on their masks. A sheet of snow can complicate things, whether it accumulates on stickblades or forms banks in the corners.
"If you can't see the puck, it's hard to play," Flyers defenseman Kimmo Timonen says. "It'll affect the game, for sure."
But all players agreed that one pleasant surprise was the ice. Some even joked it was better than half the arenas in the NHL. If the weather holds up, it could be the hard, up-tempo game the NHL is dying to put on. If it doesn't, well, not too many people are worried about that. The hockey gods have been good to the league's marquee regular season event.
Bruins winger Milan Lucic is extremely doubtful for Friday's game. Though he practiced with the team Thursday, he still isn't taking contact, though teammate Byron Bitz might've temporarily forgotten that. The two bumped a little harder than they probably meant to when waiting in line during drills. No worse the wear, though. But it's a total bummer for Lucic, who had a breakout season last year and has been completely hampered by injuries this season. He's only played 10 games and is on the verge of returning -- just not yet. You've got to feel even worse, considering how much he did to pump the Classic while he was out of the mix. He was part of the NBC commercial, went to New York to promote the game, appeared on VH1. When I talked to him in September for an NHL media event, there were two things that he was really jazzed about: the Winter Classic, and having a shot (however long it was) at making the Canadian Olympic team. Turns out neither would work out for him.
When asked where the league should hold next year's event, Quebecer Simon Gagne suggested a game in Quebec City. Montreal Canadiens vs. Colorado Avalanche (née Quebec Nordiques). That is actually a good idea.
Just what can hosting a Winter Classic: The Event do for a club? Well, last year the Chicago Blackhawks pinned Classic ducats to their full season ticket package. The only way to secure a seat at Wrigley Field was to secure one for the season in United Center. They saw an empirical increase in season tickets sold. The Bruins did the same thing, and an NHL official says they could attribute a large part of the 5,000 season-ticket increase to people who wanted to come to this game.
Speaking of its popularity, a Turnkey Sports poll of 1,100 senior level sports industry executives reported that the Winter Classic: The Event ranked fifth in sporting events most looking-forward-to-seeing in 2010. What beat it out? The Super Bowl, Winter Olympics, FIFA World Cup and NCAA Final Four. What ranked behind the outdoor game? World Series, the Masters, the BCS National Championship, and the Stanley Cup Final, which, incidentally only beat out the Indy 500 and the nebulous "other."
NHL Truth & Rumors