Crews can be seen through the windows of the press box at Heinz Field preparing the ice surface on Thursday, Dec. 30, 2010, as work continues for the Winter Classic NHL hockey game between the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins to be played in Pittsburgh on Jan. 1. 2011. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
PITTSBURGH, Pa. - There could be more that separates this year's Winter Classic from a traditional NHL game than the fact it's played outdoors.
With the weather forecast continuing to call for rain on Saturday, organizers hinted that the matchup between Pittsburgh and Washington might include the league's first ever rain delay. The NHL remains optimistic the puck will drop as scheduled at 1 p.m. ET, but it is prepared to halt the game if rain hits Heinz Field and hinders the players' visibility.
"This could take a little while," NHL chief operating officer John Collins said on Thursday. "The elements are certainly part of the story. I think it's just part of the story of the game and I think part of what makes it great. I don't really want to be taken to task on this, (but) I'm not sure it's ever rained on New Year's in Pittsburgh.
"We'll deal with it."
One thing that doesn't seem to be causing concern is the temporary ice surface that has been laid down at the football field over the last week. A million-dollar refrigeration system allows ice guru Dan Craig to keep the surface at NHL quality even if the temperatures are a bit warm—which they're expected to be Saturday with some weather services projecting the thermometer to hit 10 C.
However, the rain poses another problem, particularly for player visibility. If there ends up being a delay it will likely be caused by precipitation.
"Weather is part of the game's DNA," said Collins. "I mean it's an outdoor game. Like the World Series, weather gets involved in it. We're going to play. We're planning to play at one o'clock. We've got maximum flexibility to do what needs to do to get that game in on Saturday.
"If for some reason it was completely unplayable we have other options on Sunday. But we're going into this with the idea that we're going to play at one o'clock and we'll gather as much information as we possible can to make sure that we're taking into account the competitive integrity of the game and the safety of the players and obviously the convenience of the fans."
The ominous forecast doesn't seem to have dampened enthusiasm for the event in The Steel City. Winter Classic signs can be seen throughout Pittsburgh and hundreds of people skated on an outdoor rink set up outside Heinz Field on Thursday.
Even the arrival of the Capitals came in style as the team received a police escort from the airport.
The players will get their first taste of the outdoor experience on Friday when the teams each hold a practice. Pittsburgh's session will come right after an alumni game—which will include team owner Mario Lemieux, among others—and will be open to fans.
There will be 1,230 regular-season games played around the league this season, but none will carry the same buzz as this one. The Penguins-Capitals rivalry is arguably the most heated in the game today and the presence of Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby is fuelling interest even more. To top things off, HBO's all-access "24/7" show has gathered quite a following while documenting the teams over the last month.
When you add all of those elements, the NHL appears to have taken this Winter Classic to a higher level than its predecessors.
"As good as everything else has been coming up to this point, I think this game sets up to potentially be the biggest of them all," said Collins.
Heinz Field offers a departure from the traditional ballparks that were used when the event was held at Chicago's Wrigley Field in 2009 and Boston's Fenway Park last year. Its most distinctive feature is the bright yellow seating spread throughout the stadium.
The sightlines will be better for fans than Wrigley and Fenway because the ice sheet is laid out right across the middle of the playing field. With pre-game tailgating and a large fan expo out front, the NHL is expecting quite a scene when 68,000 people fill the building on Saturday.
It wouldn't have happened if the NFL's Steelers didn't open their doors to the NHL.
"Heinz Field is really kind of the soul of Pittsburgh," said Collins. "This is where Pittsburgh gets together—it's where they come together, it's where they celebrate, it's where they unite with friends and family during the Steelers season. ... The Steelers are a first-class organizationthat expects to be in the playoffs every year, so the idea that they would open up their last two regular-season Sundays was almost too much to hope for.
"Kind of like the idea that maybe it's not going to rain on Saturday."