WASHINGTON – A hockey rink situated in the middle of a baseball stadium remains a surreal sight to this day.
Throw in aging rocker Billy Idol sneering his way through his hits while rehearsing on a stage surrounded by fake snow, and things border on the sublime.
Those oddities spotted Wednesday at Nationals Park can mean only one thing: The NHL's marquee regular-season event, the Winter Classic, is back.
The Chicago Blackhawks and Washington Capitals will face off Thursday in the seventh edition of the outdoor game.
"It's exciting," Hawks winger Patrick Kane said after practice Wednesday. "You see this game on the schedule, and it's definitely one of the first games circled. When you get out there, it almost feels like a playoff type of game with the buzz around. We enjoy it."
Added Chicago coach Joel Quenneville: "The setting, the opportunity, the thrill, just being in that fresh-air environment is second to none. So it's a privilege and an honor. Take advantage of it, because it's very special."
Another nice aspect of the Classic is it is something different. Any change in routine from the grind of the long season is a welcome respite for everyone surrounding a hockey team, and the Winter Classic certainly provides that.
Seeing stocking caps, hand warmers, tinted visors and thermal underwear added to the usual array of sticks, gloves and skates in the dressing room shakes things up.
"It breaks up the monotony of the 82-game schedule," Hawks winger Daniel Carcillo said.
While the varying weather conditions can wreak havoc on everything from ice conditions to the start time, that unknown makes the Classic unique.
"The weather is a huge factor," Hawks winger Marian Hossa said. "We don't have to deal with it 81 times in the regular season. If it's too sunny, it can have an effect."
The Hawks and Capitals are playing in their second Classic, while plenty of teams haven't had a sniff.
"It's probably reflective of the Blackhawks being a model franchise in the NHL," captain Jonathan Toews said. "The way they handle things in Chicago, what they give back to the fans, the type of team we have and how competitive we are as a whole is very special, and the NHL recognizes that. For us, it's fun to be a part of these things and represent our city in the right way."
At some point, the NHL will acknowledge there are teams west of the Mississippi that would want to host a Winter Classic. Chicago is the westernmost city where the event has been held.