Eric Fehr knew the Washington Capitals were about to play in something kind of different when they took the ice at Heinz Field for the 2011 New Year’s Day NHL Winter Classic against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
It was a regular-season game — yet it felt like some sort of playoff game. There was nothing more at stake than a regular season win and points, but it felt like there was so much more.
“It didn’t feel like a regular season game,” Fehr said. “It felt like a playoff game. There was a lot of nervous energy in the room before the game.”
Those nerves will be familiar to the Capitals on Thursday before they take the ice at Nationals Park (how strange it is to write those words) to face the Chicago Blackhawks in the 2015 Winter Classic. The game will be making its first appearance in the nation’s capital since it began outside Buffalo in 2008.
“I can’t speak for everyone, but I enjoy the opportunity to play in this game,” Fehr said. “It’s real special for the fans to have a big game like that outside. It brings people together, and it is a showcase for us to present to fans who may not always watch hockey.”
You can understand why Fehr is looking forward to Thursday’s game. The last time he played in the Winter Classic, he made the most of the opportunity.
Fehr scored two goals to lead the Capitals to a 3-1 win over the rival Penguins in Pittsburgh before a standing-room only crowd of more than 68,000 frenzied fans. The Capitals forward just had another two-goal game in a 3-0 shutout of Pittsburgh on Saturday and scored his 10th goal of the season in a road loss to the New York Islanders on Monday.
The Winter Classic victory was memorable for many reasons — not the least of which the Capitals were struggling before the game, with a 6-7-2 record in the month leading up to it.
“People were expecting Pittsburgh to win,” Fehr said. “They were playing well. We came into the game as underdogs, and beating them in their home was pretty special.”
But it was just a regular season win — nothing more.
The NHL took a simple, innocent concept — outdoor hockey — and turned it into its showcase event, unlike any other in sports. It’s not an exhibition all-star game. It is one of 82 games the Capitals will have played this season, and a win or a loss will be nothing more than any of the other 81 games during the season.
But for Fehr and the other players, it will feel different.
“This game stands kind of on its own,” he said. “With all the stuff going on before the game, it doesn’t feel like a regular game. It’s a one-game showdown between the best teams in the league. We’re looking forward to it.”
According to the NHL, the world’s largest mobile rink refrigeration unit is being used to create the rink — a nearly two-inch-thick ice surface with 61,000 square feet of armor decking to protect the baseball field. On Thursday, at the Fairgrounds across the street from the center field gate at Nationals Park, the NHL will host a spectator plaza fan festival with hockey-themed attractions, music and other activities, starting at 9 a.m.
And, leading up to Thursday’s Winter Classic, the Epix premium TV network has been hosting the “Road to the NHL Winter Classic,” a behind-the-scenes look at both teams as they get closer to the game. It was produced by one of the best in the business, Ross Greenburg, who was behind much of the great documentaries and programming at HBO.
It was hard for the Epix series to top the last Capitals appearance on the four-part series, which was forever etched in history by the profanity-laced tirade by then-Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau.
The series caught Boudreau, during a loss to the Florida Panthers, in a locker room dressing-down following the second period that would have made Samuel L. Jackson blush.
“People still ask me about that,” Fehr said. “I don’t remember what I was thinking when he was doing it, but how do you respond to that? He was really upset. Every coach has a different way of relaying messages. That was his at the time.”
This time, the Capitals, though coming off a 4-3 loss Monday night to the Islanders, are not struggling. They go into the Winter Classic with a 6-1-3 record in their last 10 games.
Does new coach Barry Trotz have a Boudreau-like speech in him if necessary?
“Trotz has a different approach,” Fehr said. “He can get really upset, but is more calculated about what he would say. But he gets his point across.”
The point this time? To win one game — a really special game.
• Thom Loverro is co-host of “The Sports Fix,” noon to 2 p.m. daily on ESPN 980 and espn980.com.