December 17, 2009

Hype building for Winter Classic

by Douglas Flynn

Fenway Park gets a new configuration (photo: Getty)

The building of the rink on Fenway’s famous diamond is nearly complete. Now comes the buildup for the event.

The hype is already nearing full force, but just to ratchet it up a little more, the crew that will be broadcasting the Winter Classic this New Year’s Day on NBC took time to speak with the media on a conference call this week.

“This really is an event,” said play-by-play man Bob Costas. “(It’s) a hockey game yes, but it’s also an event. That’s what the Winter Classic is. It attracts a lot of people who don't necessarily follow hockey closely throughout the course of the year. … It’s a unique situation once a year outside the usual hockey arena in a baseball park or a football stadium.”

And this year it’s not in any old baseball park. The Winter Classic has come to historic Fenway Park.

“All the history,” said Costas when asked about what made the Fenway setting special. “The idea that someone sat there and watched Babe Ruth pitch or Ted Williams bat or Lefty Grove or Jimmy Foxx, plus all the visiting players through the years and the specific games and events. (Carlton) Fisk and (Bucky) Dent and the Impossible Dream and Yaz.”

Now Fenway gets to add some hockey names to the list of greats who have performed there. And the once in a lifetime nature of this event has made it even more of an attraction than the baseball games that have been played there, or any other games in the city.

“The energy has been building since the announcement,” said analyst Mike Milbury, a Walpole, Mass. native. “It’s the toughest ticket to get that I have seen in all of my years in Boston, including Bruins playoffs, Red Sox playoffs, Patriots championships and Celtics championships. This is an event. It’s going to be a spectacular event and I’m just happy to be even a little bit a part of it.”

NBC is pulling out all the stops to capture the spectacle, with 25 cameras, extra microphones to pick up sounds and even an airplane providing shots from high above the field.

“We’ll shoot it bigger than a normal game and wider than a normal game,” said producer Sam Flood, who grew up in Dedham, Mass. “It’s about the place as much as it is about the game.”

Still, there is a game to be played amid all the pageantry. And one that is important to both the Bruins and the Flyers.

“Both teams desperately need the points, especially the Flyers,” said analyst Pierre McGuire. “The points are so important in this game. I think people are probably pushing that aside because they’re so excited about it being in Fenway, which they should be, but the points are really, really important.”

Milbury agreed. “Ultimately this game should be a really good hockey game between two teams that should be among the elite of the conference,” he said.

That was the expectation when the matchup was made. While the Bruins have overcome a slow start to get back up among the upper echelon of the conference, the Flyers remain mired in the basement, even after a coaching change earlier this month.

That didn’t stop Philadelphia from downing Boston 3-1 at the Garden on Monday.

“It’s spiced up a bit as the Flyers came into town and spanked the Bruins in their last game,” said Milbury.

This is a rivalry that’s never lacked spice.

“This rivalry goes back to the late 60s, early 70s and right through that decade in particular,” said Milbury. “It got its roots there. These were some of the nastiest battles that I’ve ever been involved with. Both teams, in their own way, have adapted to the new rules, they’ve listened to their fans and kept that concept. They want hard-nosed hockey. They want physical hockey. They want people to show up saying that we want to prove to you that we’re tough players and we’ve come to play every night. And that’s what you’re going to get in this game.

“It really will be a lot of fun to watch,” added Milbury.

McGuire picked up on that theme.

“You bring a player like Zdeno Chara into the mix and that’s 6-foot-9 and a whole lot of nasty,” said McGuire. “And on the other team guys like Scottie Hartnell and Mike Richards and Danny Carcillo, who like to push back, that leads to a lot of physical altercations.

“There will be villians on both sides – Shawn Thornton on one side, Danny Carcillo on the other,” added McGuire. “This game is going to be about energy.”

Let’s just hope everyone has the energy to make it to Jan. 1 before the hype becomes too unbearable.

Douglas Flynn can be reached at dflynn@hockeyjournal.com.