Caps Stadium Series both celebration, reminder of what could have been

Saturday's Stadium Series game in Annapolis showed the NHL at its best, which only made the league's absence from the Olympics that much more glaring.

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — The Washington Capitals’ Stadium Series game Saturday, outdoor in the blustery night, atop a mock aircraft carrier inside Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, gave those in attendance a little bit of everything. There were hours of pregaming, both official and not, a high-scoring game, a celebration of champions, and even a power outage.

In the end, it was a nearly perfect advertisement for the game of hockey, the kind of event well-designed to make lifelong fans out of those in attendance. And as stuffed as the day was, that only amplified the one thing it was missing.

More on that later. But first, the “Pregame.”

Games aren’t games anymore — everything’s an event. All the production makes sense for something as painstaking as a Stadium Series game. With two weeks of construction and ice preparation, you want to make sure you’re getting the biggest possible bang for your buck. But everything happening at the “Pregame” is still all a bit much.

Like the NFL Draft or College Gameday, the brands have infiltrated every square inch of promotional real estate. Want to show off your slap shot? There’s the Pepsi Bullseye Battle. If that’s not to your liking, try shooting through the loops of an oversize cardboard pretzel at the Rold Gold booth, all of 15 feet away. Looking for something more unconventional? Try target practice into a front-loading washer and dryer, brought to you by NHL Network and DirecTV. Or the Power Play Goal, shooting against hanging paint cans, brought to you by PPG. Or, if you’re a purist, there’s the Accuracy Challenge, with traditional red and white bullseyes, sponsored by NBCSN.

The Honda booth lets you shoot up a ramp into a target in the trunk of a Civic (you do not have a chance to win the car, though).

Oh, right, and the nameless Coors Light challenge, in which you shoot crushed silver bullet beer cans at targets, all within the view of the bar. If you’re like this writer, and haven’t held a hockey stick since high school, this proves to be incredibly difficult, especially with sporadic 40-mph wind gusts darting through the open air venue.

Hockey can be somewhat limiting in its fan participation options, especially with an outdoor event in 40-plus-degree weather. There’s no ice, so there’s no ice rink. Thankfully, there’s plenty of beer, which makes it among the most popular spots.

But the biggest fan draw is easily the gold medal-winning U.S. Women’s Hockey Team. A full 45 minutes before their autograph-signing session even starts, the line wound across the gravel lot, several hundred deep. Pretty soon, it was backed all the way up to the entrance, clear across the venue.

“They’re here for a game — a Caps-Toronto game — and they’re all cheering for us,” said Haley Skarupa, the Rockville, Maryland, native and fourth line forward still adjusting to sudden hero status after scraping to make the team just a couple months ago. She hasn’t even had time to get dinner with her folks yet.

“My family’s around here somewhere,” she said. “Probably … hopefully I’ll see them, but right now, yeah, we’re just always on the go.”

A lifelong Caps fan, Skarupa gets the double bonus of getting to watch a game she’d already been looking forward to without even having to buy a ticket.

“I was going to come to this game today, no matter what,” she said.

Longtime National Hockey League vet and current broadcaster Jeremy Roenick was always going to be here, too. He is done more than a dozen outdoor games, but the shine never wears off.

“I think it’s really important,” he said. “And it’s not so much for the television viewers, it’s for the people who come out to watch the games. It has such a different aura about it, brings us back to the history of the game, playing outdoors on the ponds, out in the fresh air.”

Roenick understands the night’s ability to draw new fans. But he also rues the huge, missed opportunity, the one the NHL let slide by, of having their players on Olympic ice. Roenick himself was inspired to become a pro by the Miracle on Ice squad from 1980.

“I was disappointed, and I made my feelings very apparent,” he said of the NHL’s decision. “It gave the women such a platform to build women’s hockey in America, because I think that’s growing in leaps and bounds. I think you’re going to get an explosion of more young girls that are going to want to repeat what they did and experience what they did.”

To wit — more than 200 girls turned out for a clinic at Kettler Captials Iceplex in Ballston Friday to meet the women they watched just weeks earlier shine on the world stage.

“(We had) a lot of conversations like that, that they stayed up to watch or recorded it and watched it the morning before school, and how it was the greatest thing they ever watched and they’re so excited to skate now,” said Skarupa. “It’s so amazing to see and so exciting for us that we had that impact on kids.”

Once inside the gates for the game itself, it’s the same story. Sure, the F-18 flyover that rattles the press box window is cool, as is the perfectly curled stone from U.S. Men’s Curling skipper John Shuster, spinning to a stop right at center ice. But during the second intermission, the entire U.S. Women’s Hockey Team is introduced, one-by-one, to an ongoing, standing ovation from fans in Caps and Leafs jerseys alike. As great as the moment is, as unifying and electrifying in the stadium, it only made the NHL’s decision not to send its own players look even more shortsighted.

Unlike the men’s Olympic tournament, this game is played with elite pace and skill, and with plenty of goals. The Caps score three times in the first, including Alex Ovechkin’s 598th career tally, briefly prompting the possibility he might indeed hit the vaunted 600 mark tonight, with a hat trick, in epic style. But by the end of the second period, the Caps are comfortably ahead, 5-2, and neither team will capitalize the rest of the way.

There have been fireworks aplenty, literally and figuratively, but as the teams trade ends midway through the third period, all four stanchions of lights suddenly go dark. It’s a scene reminiscent of the Super Bowl a few years back, the kind of drama that can co-opt the good storylines and feelings from an event.

Instead, it only adds to the flavor of the evening. Unprompted, the crowd starts pulling their cellphones out, turning on the flashlight function in a well-intended, if ultimately futile, attempt to light the ice. The stadium PA blares through the classic American bar last call playlist — Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer,” a-ha’s “Take on Me” — turning the phone-lit stands into an impromptu karaoke party. By the time the lights come on 15 minutes later, the bar’s all but closed. There’s still 10 minutes of game time left, but most of the fans have shuffled off into the night.

As if a reminder of the divide between hockey and the Big 3 American sports above it in popularity, the power delay forces the game to run long, and the national NBC broadcast cuts it early, with 4:12 left, to go to local news, booting it over to NBCSN. Even a major national game doesn’t have enough clout to hold the national broadcast over regularly scheduled programming.

Hockey still has room to grow, and events such as Saturday night’s can only help. Maybe next time an outdoor game comes to the Washington region, there will be two Olympic Hockey gold medal teams there to celebrate.

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