Winter Classic: Five Things That Are Right

It’s been more than 24 hours since the Winter Classic pitted the New York Rangers and the Philadelphia Flyers in an outdoor battle at our own Citizens Bank Park.

Today, we’ll bask in the afterglow and reveal what is right with the NHL’s New Year’s Day party continuing in the vein of our “Five Things” series.

5. The Great Outdoors — Though most of us were not born or raised or spent much time in Canada, nor were we privy to the chilled Winter waters of Massachusetts and Minnesota, we still recognize that hockey is a children’s game played by men, and hockey fans nonetheless feel an affinity for our favorite game played among the elements.

Despite the incessant hand-wringing brought on by long-and-short-range forecasts that threatened at the very least to ruin our moods days ahead of time, it’s a badge of honor and test of will when it’s fan vs. Mother Nature. And she really gave us something to brave, what with the temps below 40, the wind chills around 20 and the surprise burst of snow showers at the end of the second period.

I bet that, beyond who won or who lost, the best memories from yesterday are the thousands of pics of the bundled masses, ruddy faces to the wind and backs to the stands, smiling amidst the floating  flurries. You don’t get that on a random Thursday night in October and the thrill is something beyond simply sitting in the frozen stands to see your son/daughter/relative score his or her first goal of a young career at the crack of dawn 30 miles from home.

4. The Lottery — Let’s face it, the opportunity to go to the Winter Classic is something most die-hard will not want to pass up. But that means someone has to find the tickets, and y’know, buy the tickets. And that means time and money are spent for the endeavor, the kind of time and money required that means you have to separate the wanting from the faithful.

So you put out the feelers: “Got 2/3/4 tickets to the game…who wants to go?” and wait to see who amongst your friends/acquaintances/people you can stand/enemies want them, and how badly they want them. Cue hockey’s version of “What would you do for a Klondike bar?”

Of course, life tends to intrude, and the internal calculations begin: food, rent, mortgage, gas, kids, holiday spending that makes your credit card send out smoke signals against the irresistible pull of a once-in-a-lifetime event. And it makes people do some pretty fantastic things to prove themselves, doesn’t it? They send you long lost pictures from your childhood. They praise your inherent goodness and decency. They’ll even pander to that by promoting other, more dedicated fans to get that gleaming key to the kingdom. They might even use reverse psychology and rip mercilessly into the sport to prove how much they really don’t care about getting hooked up.

In the end, if you were one of the lucky people to go through with it, you get a real good psychological work-up of your friends, neighbors and relatives. And while you’re laughing your ass off, you also get a sense of dread that these people don’t give a damn unless you’ve got a carrot to dangle in front of their eyes. Such is business, such is life. But you essentially get satisfaction over being the person pulling the strings.

3. Alumni Game — I’m going to keep this slotted in the middle, which is right where I had it in the planning stages of this post and well before the fans of Philadelphia (and some of the Northern New Jersey/New York area) came up with the best showing yet — 45,808 strong on Saturday afternoon.

So what if the heroes of the past are so out of the loop that they described themselves as having a “full-body injury” after one 30 minute practice the day before the actual game? We’re not paying to see them as they are now. We’re paying to see what’s in the back of our minds leap to the front of our eyeballs.

While it was deeply disappointing to know that the average age of the returning players trended somewhere North of 50, and I personally disagreed with the circus of having a 66-year-old goaltender steal five minutes of glory, there’s just a whole lotta things that are magnetic about the forgotten (or not-so-forgotten) sons coming back home. Look at Mark Laforest. He played 1 3/4 seasons in Philly 22 years ago, and he ends up stealing the show from EVERYBODY, even from a partial Legion of Doom reunion.

Well, maybe not EVERYBODY. Because Ron Duguay won the unofficial awards for “Best Hair” and “Most Original Hair Still on Head.”

But you know what I’m getting at. It’s a chance for those of us old enough to relive the memories, and to pass those on as history lessons to those who were not lucky enough to be born then or just now have the opportunity to learn about their team and the sport. It’s also a great time to air those pesky ancient grievances against the players who might have stiffed you on that autograph, or the opponents who look twice as ugly in middle age as they did in the bloom of youth.

And I’m ecstatic as a Philadelphia native and hockey fan that this year’s game has put the others to shame and issued a challenge to Detroit and future host cities to match the intensity of the fans and the number of those who show up.

2. Guaranteed rivalry games The NHL may be made up of 30 jesters and one head Fool, but they’re no suckers. It’s an obvious equation, getting two popular teams with some type of history together to maximize ratings. They’re not going to force people to pay once-in-a-lifetime prices for the Flyers and Senators, Bruins and Islanders or Wild and Coyotes.

In that way, you’re automatically going to be drawn to the event even if your city and team is not represented. Even though there are only a handful of combinations that can result from Philly/Boston/New York/Washington/Pittsburgh/Detroit/Chicago, the league is betting on the fact that it can milk the cash cow long enough to last until they come up with an event that’s bigger and better.

Got love? You pour into old ballparks that have no business hosting games, like Wrigley or Fenway. You head into enemy territory with head held high and opposing crests blazing. Or you’re planning your errands for the day before and day after specifically around the WC time slot and gather the family around the 57″ HDTV.

Got hate? Then tune in to see Sidney lose (he’s 1-1), Ovechkin win, the Flyers faithful whipped into a frenzy, Mike Milbury make an ass of himself, Pierre McGuire attach his lips to the player of his choice, and for all the obligatory comments about the slant of the officiating for one team or the other.

Live in cold climates? Don’t like the outcome? Then work yourself up by watching the game and afterwards, find the nearest frozen pond and become the star of your own Winter Classic with your mates. I’d be Danny Briere and I’d definitely come up with better moves than he showed with the game on the line against someone far worse than Henrik Lundqvist between the pipes.

1. Little to no rancor from either side — Aside from the usual crude chants about one’s rival city or rival players, or crude chants about the two competing fan bases’ mutual rivals, the Winter Classic pretty much bridges the gap between rival cities in a way I didn’t expect.

Once you drag the huddled masses away from their tailgating spots and into the actual gathering place, the fear of reprisals — whether real or imagined — melt away. Men, women and children wearing Rangers gear weren’t provoked and only received the usual Northeastern peace greetings yesterday in the belly of the beast.

When all else fails, after fans turn on each other with jabs about their players, respective cities and sartorial choices, you get that knowing smile because there’s mutual recognition that we’re all in this together. Everybody has to sacrifice to make the experience happen, and no matter what age you are, there’s thousands of others just looking to make the day special rather than focusing on hatred of the other side.

It’s as if the lack of a roof and walls on all sides lets all the combativeness slip away into the ether, letting the aura of history remain…except for the one dust-up, two rows over, where both Flyers-and Rangers-clad fans got the heave amidst cat calls in the third period.

I witnessed it in Boston two years ago, and my partial sources in Pittsburgh say the same thing about last year’s matchup: once the game starts, it’s all about mutual respect and mutual enjoyment. For that and that alone, this new tradition has got to continue to thrive, in whatever way that becomes a reality.