Look for Classic to be played Saturday, and other Thursday thoughts from Heinz Field


Well, dear readers, this has been far too busy a Winter Classic week for me to blog about normal Penguins-related matters, but I figured an update was due with Classic Friday up next.

= I’ve heard from enough NHL officials over the last two days to draw this conclusion: The game will be played Saturday, start to finish, unless the rains cause floods that force two of every species into an arc. The forecast isn’t that dire, nowhere near as dire as some around town would have you believe, and there are big enough rain-free windows to play this game. Also, as one official and I discussed, don’t discount the importance to NBC of playing this game Saturday, even if that means playing it mostly at night. The Classic, great as it is for the NHL, has been BETTER for NBC – giving the network a staple on New Year’s Day. As NHL chief operating officer JOHN COLLINS noted Thursday, New Year’s Day is the third biggest TV day of any year in the United States. Were I a betting reporter, and I’m not, I’d bet for Game On.

= HBO’s “24/7” series continues to just blow my mind, and I’m not exactly one known to be positive about, well, anything. The third episode was a jaw-dropper regarding the footage of Pens-Caps I on this season. I’ll be asking C EVGENI MALKIN Friday if he heard what the Capitals coach BRUCE BOUDREAU had to say about him before the Dec. 23 game at Washington. More important, will Penguins coach DAN BYLSMA point out to Malkin how Boudreau’s assessment – that Malkin can be frustrated into taking careless penalties and taken out of his game – was basically proven correct in that game. I’ll be asking that one, too.

= Prediction sure to go wrong: Malkin, not C SIDNEY CROSBY, turns this Classic into his personal reminder to the hockey world that he can be unstoppable force. (This doesn’t mean I think Crosby won’t play well. He will. I just have a feeling, maybe based off talking to some of his teammates, that Malkin is ready to make an impact with a lot of people watching.)

= I’ll be many NHL officials went to be Thursday night wishing they had allowed for more tickets to be sold to the Winter Classic alumni game. I scored MARIO LEMIEUX’S first Classic-related interview this week — http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/sports/penguins/s_715682.html — and I got the feeling even he was surprised the league didn’t find a way to get more than 10,000 people into Heinz Field for his first game since retirement. The Penguins will stream the game on their website, www.pittsburghpenguins.com, which is great for fans that don’t have tickets – still, I can’t help but think that not packing the stadium and showing the game on NHL Network was a miss by the league. Bottom line: One of the greatest players in hockey history is lacing up the skates Friday… on an outdoor rink in a city where he is beloved like no other athlete anywhere. It’s a big deal. It’s a very big deal.

= Lemieux told me that the Penguins want to set up an NHL-sized outdoor rink next winter and keep it open for a couple of months. Great idea, I say. The secondary rink was abuzz with great vibes all week. I dare say it’s been the North Shore’s biggest hit since that TROY POLAMALU song from 2005.

= A lot of dear readers have asked me about my job over the years – specifically, what moment is my favorite to have experienced over a 16-year career covering sports as a newspaper guy. Well, the media skate Thursday on the outdoor rink will find its way into my top 5 when all the words have been written. I hadn’t laced the skates for about two years, and now I’m so psyched to have been on the ice that I’m asking friends about potential summer leagues. Proud to say I held my own, even if “King of All Hockey Media” Pierre LeBrun (ESPN.com, and a former junior player in Canada) and Michelle Crechiolo (Penguins web content manager, and a former Michigan State women’s player) routinely showed me up with their slick skating skills. One of those two may have provided the ultimate insult by spraying me, but I digress…

My point is, as dear readers have pointed out, too often I come off like a guy who doesn’t appreciate the fun parts of this job. I considered that sentiment a lot over the offseason and tried to approach the Winter Classic coverage of this past month differently, maybe less from a cynical perspective. Hopefully a change has been noticeable in my coverage. Certainly I’ve had fun covering this event, and Thursday’s skate was a blast.

By the way, the ice was slightly soft – but I was on it 48 hours before the Classic is set to begin, and I’m confident it will be in great shape for Saturday (weather permitting). This surface was much better than the one at Consol Energy Center at the start of this season. Several reporters who are veterans of all Classic media skates said the Heinz Field surface was the best yet.