I flew from Austin, Texas to Baltimore, Maryland on December 28, 2010 for what promised to be an epic hockey trip. The trip was my first return to the DC metro area since relocating back to Austin earlier in the year. Over the course of 7 days, I would be attending four hockey games, including the 2011 Winter Classic, a matchup between the Washington Capitals and their most hated rival, the Pittsburgh Penguins. In preparation for the trip, I had been watching the weather predictions like a hawk and things weren’t looking good. The latest forecast called for temperatures in the 50s and a high probability of rain. When I boarded the plane at Austin Bergstrom early Tuesday morning all I hoped was that they would not cancel the game.

My journey began with a rematch of last year’s Stanley Cup playoffs between the Washington Capitals and the Montreal Canadiens. Even without Jaroslav Halak, the goalie that stymied the Capitals last spring, the Canadiens posed a challenge for the boys at Verizon Center. Walking into the arena, memories came flooding back from the city that made me fall in love with hockey. While I’d been a casual Dallas Stars fan for years, it was not until I lived in DC that I developed a real passion for the sport. From even before the first notes of the national anthem, I scanned the crowd and saw a sea of red. Fans did not wait until the puck dropped at Verizon Center to show up, many of them were there early to catch warmups set to the tune of celebrity DJ Brett Leonhart’s soundtrack. It was great to be a part of the crowd again, cheering, “Let’s go Caps” along with the Horn Guy and Loud Goat. And yes, even screaming “Red” during the national anthem rather than “Stars.”

The game definitely delivered the excitement that was promised, with the Capitals shutting out the Habs 3-0. Varlamov earned the start in net for the home team and was sharp throughout the game. I got to connect with some great Caps fans I’d been chatting with via Twitter leading up to my trip and it was nice to be back in my second home for a little while. On Wednesday, I was able to pick up some gifts for friends back home in Texas at Kettler, including a Winter Classic jersey for myself. However, I struggled with how to customize the jersey, not really knowing who would be in net for the Capitals. The staff at KCI was so helpful and friendly and I even managed to run into someone that has followed me on Twitter since the Calder Cup finals last year. It really is a small world sometimes.

On Thursday we hit the road to Pittsburgh for an afternoon hockey double-header, first seeing a college game with RIT and Robert Morris College. My friend Chris is an RIT alum and was excited to see his boys in brown and orange take the victory. In addition, he was able to get some help from the RIT hockey team with “Project Vicarious Major,” an effort for a college fraternity buddy that is currently serving in Iraq. The whole hockey team posed with a photo of his friend Bill Bernhard in their locker room after the game.

Following the college matchup, the reigning Calder Cup Champion Hershey Bears took on their rival, the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins. In a true goalie battle, the Bears earned the two points in the standings with a shutout at the hands of netminder Braden Holtby. The final score at Consol was 1-0 Bears over the Pens. As an added bonus, I was able to say hi to a couple of people I met during the AHL playoffs last year and the staff at Consol was quite helpful in making that happen. In case they had any doubt, I will say that the Hershey Bears are lucky to have John Walton as their play-by-play guy and it is fascinating to watch him call a game – one of the best in the business.

The next day was New Year’s Eve and it certainly turned out be one of the most special ones I’ve had in a few years. Honestly I’ve never put a lot of stock in ringing in the New Year, but this year was different. With the help of a few DC media people and the friends I travelled with, I managed to find a nice crowd on the Southside of Pittsburgh. Early we cheered on Team USA in the World Juniors as they cruised to a 2-1 victory over the Swiss. Goalie of the future for the Dallas Stars, Jack Campbell played an excellent game again and made some remarkable saves during the third to keep Team USA in the game. The chant of “Freedom” and cheers rang throughout the bar as USA scored the game winner.

Also throughout the night, Capitals fans made their presence known in the ‘Burgh, starting up chants of “C-A-P-S Caps, Caps, Caps!!” While a few Penguins fans at Smokey Joe’s answered back with “Let’s go Pens,” the visitors actually outnumbered the home team at several establishments. A funny moment of the night came when someone started a chant that all the patrons could agree with, “Flyers Suck!!” We rang in the New Year with friends, both old and new and somehow managed to finally make it back to our hotel room in the wee hours after midnight. Let’s just say I’m pretty sure I was not the only person that was happy that the game was pushed back to an 8 pm start time!

On Saturday, we continued to check the weather report and finally decided on what would be the appropriate layers for the first Winter Classic ever to be played under the lights of a football stadium. Walking over to Heinz Field, there was a buzz for blocks – fans chanting back and forth; vendors hawking t-shirts and other team gear; tailgaters wrapping up the party for the walk to the stadium. Heading into Heinz it was absolutely electric. I’ve been to a lot of sporting events in my life and this game to me truly had the feeling of something a lot bigger than a regular season game.

Although Evengi Malkin scored the first goal for the Penguins, the rest of the game was somewhat dominated by the Capitals, led by unlikely hero Eric Fehr. F16 notched two goals for the Caps coming off the bench after being scratched in the team’s two previous games. Once the Capitals scored their first, there was really a momentum shift. I felt like Marc Andre Fleury got extremely lucky as his team really kept a few pucks from going in, despite him being tangled up out of position several times. A missed attempt by Caps Jason Chimera at an open net also kept the Penguins close. I was not able to see a close up of the Penguins goal that was called back, but the fans behind us sure thought it was a bogus call. Ovechkin also had a goal called back for the Capitals later in the game.

At the end of the day, despite the cold rain that drizzled down for much of the latter part of the game, we all left beaming from ear to ear. Just could not wipe the grin off my face…and it stayed there for days. Even now, a week later, all someone has to do is mention the Winter Classic and I get all giddy. Also, kudos to both the Capitals and the Penguins organizations as well for agreeing to give us all a sneak peek into the preparations through the HBO special 24/7 – absolutely amazing work by HBO to chronicle this experience. Excellent soundtrack and narrative – I definitely teared up watching the final episode. It truly was one of the greatest weekends of my life. In addition, I’m glad my first Winter Classic was to see a team that I love so much. I’m so fortunate that I have great friends that invited me to go and also made the trip fun.