Hats off to hockey. We don’t mean that literally because no one wanted to see 41,821 people at Citi Field get frozen even more than they already were. It is figurative, a tip of the cap to a sport and a league that can stir so many folks to stand out there for three hours when the wind chill (-2 at one point) was lower than the plus/minus rating of any player on the ice.
Ten years into the Winter Classic, and this still is a big deal. The National Hockey League’s annual New Year’s Day game still has a place on the holiday landscape alongside the Times Square ball drop. This year, it finally shared the same city, too, and it was a huge hit.
East Side, West Side, everyone came down to Citi Field, home of the Mets, to see the Rangers beat the Sabres, 3-2, in overtime of a game that actually was something of a classic.
It was only a regular-season game and, truth be told, it was like just about every other Rangers contest lately — tight and low-scoring with some dry spells. Yet it seemed like a whole lot more, which is a tribute to the league and the greatest marketing idea it has ever had.
“I know I was smiling most of the game and really enjoying it, looking around when I could,” said Kevin Shattenkirk, a Mets fan from New Rochelle who fired the power-play shot on net that resulted in a rebound and J.T. Miller’s goal at 2:43 of overtime. “It was a lot of fun coming back here, to a place where I came to watch a lot of baseball games. To throw a hockey rink in the middle of it was pretty cool.”
Shattenkirk took the shot from a spot that normally would be on the third-base side of the infield. He spoke about it afterward at his dressing room stall, right next to the one Yoenis Cespedes uses in the summer.
Juxtapositions mean everything. Hockey players do not generally play in stadiums. They do not soak up the adulation that football, basketball and baseball players do. But the Winter Classic gives them a chance to be like the big kids, and die-hard hockey fans eat it up. They dearly love their sport and their teams — eschewing heavy coats and extra layers so that they can proudly display their jerseys — and they embrace witnessing a spectacle.
With the Winter Classic, the NHL displays a flair for promotion we didn’t know it had. This is as close as the league gets to a Super Bowl. Ace Frehley stood on a stage near the rink, singing “Back in the New York Groove.” The Goo Goo Dolls performed during the first intermission. The group Max Weinberg’s Jukebox played before the game and during stoppages (amazingly, those guys were able to play guitars despite the frostbite).
To honor the 10th anniversary of the snow-sparkled first Winter Classic, the NHL invited the low-octane Sabres, who hosted in 2008, and had the national anthem sung by a chorus of kids who had not been born when that game was played. Planes flew overhead. A trained eagle soared.
“The sun was out and you could tell it was a spectacle building there,” Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh said. “And it was great to be a part of it.”
It all ran smoothly, with a solid assist from the Mets. That meant something to the guy who assisted on the deciding goal. “I was a huge Mike Piazza fan, so really any time he hit a home run — and he hit a lot of them — those were probably my favorite Mets moments,” Shattenkirk said.
The NHL and all concerned hit a home run again with this Winter Classic. Here’s hoping it comes back to New York before too long. Maybe in front of 100,000, at the racetrack at Belmont Park.