Collier: Pucks fly at Heinz Field


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Ever have that dream where you are in Heinz Field -- I mean right down on the field -- but the Steelers aren't there and the place is empty except for some guys in suits and Sidney Crosby, who's trying to shoot the puck between the uprights from, like, 70 yards away?

Me neither.

So that pretty much had to be reality Tuesday on the North Shore, and just to make certain that I actually was awake, I asked Crosby what might the practical application be of firing the old vulcanized hockey biscuit through the football uprights during baseball season.

"Just fun," quoth the Sid.

As he often does with frightening precision, Crosby pretty much nailed the whole reason for Tuesday, for Jan. 1, 2011, and for the previous three National Hockey League versions of New Year's Day, which is to take two hockey teams and bang them together on an outdoor rink.

It's fun that drives the Winter Classic, and no one is having more fun than the NHL brand developers, who last season fielded more than 307,000 ticket requests for the 38,112 splintery seats in Boston's Fenway Park. The coming Pittsburgh winter brings the event to Heinz Field, were ticket requests will be easier to fill in the celebrated backyard of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

"We're very excited," Art Rooney II told a midday news conference right there on his lawn, "about seeing an ice rink built out here in the middle of December."

Again, I am awake, right?

This is the same place where a descendant pig bladder once stuck in the mud like a lawn dart, right?

"Well," Rooney said, "we did have to think long and hard about it."

No real worries, though. The Steelers will have at least a week to get the surface back to standard before the NFL playoffs start.

Either that or at least a year.

But the skepticism that was overcome to land the Winter Classic in Pittsburgh came not just from the football team, but once had deeper roots in the hierarchy of the Washington Capitals, who'll be the Penguins' Jan. 1 opponent.

Dick Patrick, the Capitals' chief operating officer and the cousin of former Penguins general manager Craig Patrick, explained some of that sentiment.

"How you are going to feel," he said, pointing toward the farthest section of the Heinz Field heavens, "if you're sitting up there in 541 freezing your ass off? I was always thinking about worst-case scenarios. What are we subjecting our fans to and what about the players? What if it rains?

"But my skepticism was misplaced. It's turned into a great event that the players and the fans really enjoy."

Patrick's skepticism might be misplaced, but mine's still right there in my wallet next to my library card. Commissioner Gary Bettman, among the officials wearing dark suits and ties in the blazing sun, explained that this is the event that returns hockey to its roots.

I guess there's something to be said for that because I know a lot of North Americans, especially northern North Americans, grow up thinking hockey is meant to be played on outdoor rinks, in the cold, in the snow, in the wind, and, of course, should the opportunity arise, in a 65,000-seat football stadium.

"When I was playing," said Patrick, "I was always hoping to make a team that was good enough to play inside."

As it happens, Bettman was right to gamble on this idea in Buffalo three years ago, when the Penguins won the first Winter Classic on Crosby's shootout goal. Just as right were Penguins president David Morehouse and Mayor Luke Penguinstahl, who together recognized an urgency to bring it to Pittsburgh in the near term.

Now Forbes Magazine has called the NHL's Winter Classic the best new sporting event of the past decade, which sounds suspiciously like one of those marginal Grammy categories -- best new Norwegian salsa artist -- but let's not quibble.

The Winter Classic will be the culmination of a weeklong celebration of Pittsburgh and Penguins hockey, and I guess I'm grateful already just for the opportunity Tuesday. Likely never again will I get to see Crosby, Max Talbot, Pascal Dupuis, and Capitals Mike Knuble and David Steckel fire pucks at a goalpost.

When Crosby finally sent one over the crossbar for the waiting videographers, the others nearly cheered.

"Good," Talbot said. "Now we can go."


Gene Collier: gcollier@post-gazette.com .


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