On the first of January, most people recover from New Year’s eve by sleeping in and throwing back a bloody mary (or two) over brunch. There was no leisurely brunching for me this year though, as I was up bright and early to drive from Boston to Foxborough, Massachusetts for the 8th annual Winter Classic. Between the record-breaking 68-degree Christmas eve weather, sub-par ice conditions due to the beating sun and warm temperatures on practice day, and last-minute availability concerns of Brad Marchand and Brendan Gallagher, there were still a lot of question marks heading into the game for both the teams and their fans.
After arriving in parking lot 50 just before 11:00 A.M., the pregame buzz was already tangible as Bruins and Habs fans alike gathered (in a shockingly civil manner, might I add) to tailgate. Despite the gray, overcast skies and chilly temperatures, spirits were high leading up to puck drop.
Upon entering Gillette, it became immediately apparent why famed sports designer Todd Radom called the Winter Classic “the best visual day of the sports year.” At the base of the stadium’s 12-story walls, the glistening rink surrounded by vintage logos and a silhouette of the Winter Classic logo was a perfect sight for tired and slightly-buzzed eyes. Sitting in the 20th row of the upper decks was surprisingly a perfect vantage point for watching the pregame ceremonies, providing an almost-bird’s eye view of the snow-covered field below.
The afternoon kicked off with Oh, Canada, sung partially in English and French by Canadian pop-punkers Simple Plan. To perform the Star Spangled Banner, the latest winner of NBC’s The Voice, Jordan Smith, took the field with the Boston Pops to a less-than-warm reception from the 67,246 fans in attendance, disappointed by the network’s snub of long-time Bruins anthem singer, Rene Rancourt. After a C-130J fly-over and a quick pyrotechnics display, the teams took the field and prepared for puck drop.
From there, it was pretty much all downhill for Bruins fans. The team came out looking sluggish, allowing the Canadiens to strike first and fast with a goal just over a minute into the first period. The second stanza didn’t prove to be much better for the B’s, as the Habs dominated the offensive play through almost the entire first 40 minutes, taking a comfortable 3-0 lead into the third period. After a quick 3-song performance at intermission by Simple Plan, including 2004 radio hit “Welcome To My Life,” the teams returned to the ice once again as the Bruins tried to make up for lost time in the final period
The shining beacon of hope for the B’s came early in the third when the Bruins got on the board with a Matt Beleskey goal, cutting Montreal’s lead to two and revitalizing the crowd. Chants of “let’s go Bruins” echoed through the stadium after the goal announcement and enthusiastic post-goal “woooo” by the fans, but the mood in the stands was quickly dampened when the Habs answered with two more goals of their own, bringing the final score to a less than satisfactory 5-1 loss for Boston.
Despite Boston’s substandard performance on the ice (the players themselves described the loss as embarrassing, unfortunate and unacceptable), there was a lot to appreciate for simply being at this event. The fan environment was fantastic, even between rivals, from the tailgating camaraderie in the parking lots to bonding with fellow fans in the stands (special shoutout to the Habs fan who was even kind enough to share his pizza with us!)
Bruins coach Claude Julien also gave New England fans something to smile about, wearing a Bill Belichick-inspired hoodie on the bench, style approved by Coach Bill himself.
And speaking of the Patriots, both teams’ goaltenders channeled the beloved New England football franchise with their masks, quarterback Tom Brady making an appearance on both. Canadiens netminder and Massachusetts native Mike Condon was lucky enough to have Brady and Belichick sign his mask before the game, telling NHL.com that “anything that Tom Brady touches turns to gold, so I was pretty happy. Hopefully [he] got some mojo on my helmet there.” The Brady mojo seemed to serve Condon well, as he made 28 stops in the game, including a wild glove save that robbed Ryan Spooner and sent a wave of disappointed and awe-filled sighs around the stadium as the clock ran out on the second period.
Other standout moments of the game included Beleskey’s leveling hit on Andrei Markov, impressive even from the upper decks, Tuukka Rask’s multiple big saves (plus taking a puck to the throat and still staying in the game) and the friendly scraps dispersed throughout the contest, in case we needed reminding of just how much these teams really dislike each other. Regardless of the outcome or score of the game though, the entire event truly was a spectacle to be remembered and a special day for fans and players alike. While our dreams of an outdoor victory and leapfrogging into first place may have been dashed, the new year brings a new turning point for this Bruins team and a chance to regroup and surge back in the year ahead.