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Glare of the spotlight (and the sun) turns to Winter Classic

WASHINGTON — The Blackhawks haven’t been focusing on the Winter Classic over the last few weeks, their attention diverted by road trips, tough opponents, Christmas break, on-ice triumph and off-ice tragedy. But the outdoor game against the Washington Capitals at Nationals Park on Thursday has always been looming in the distance.

And sometimes a lot closer.

“It’s always reminding you, when you walk in and you’ve got a camera in your face, that the Winter Classic’s coming,” Marian Hossa said of the Epix TV crew that’s been documenting their every move.

Now, with one last critical showdown behind them — Monday night’s stirring 5-4 shootout victory over the Nashville Predators — the Hawks can turn their attention to the much less significant, but much higher-profile Winter Classic. It’s the second time in the NHL’s marquee regular-season event for each team, and the Hawks’ third outdoor game overall (and second in 10 months).

That’s a sign of the respect the Hawks organization has as a sure-fire ratings winner for the NHL, but perhaps it’s also a sign that the event itself is becoming a bit stale, and perhaps overdone with the Stadium Series added to the mix.

It’s not Wings-Hawks at Wrigley. It’s a non-conference game between two non-rivals in a stadium with no character or history. But it’s still a welcome change of pace during the 82-game grind.

“The Winter Classic is just another game on the schedule,” Patrick Sharp said. “But it’s going to be a great experience. When we get to Washington, I think it’ll all sink in when you see the atmosphere, see the park and how the rink’s set up. … It’s another regular-season game, but it’s definitely circled on the calendar.”

The bad news is, there’s no snow in the forecast, so a repeat of the Soldier Field snow globe on March 1 is unlikely. The worse news is, there’s a lot of sun in the forecast. The 2012 Winter Classic between the Rangers and Flyers in Philadelphia was delayed two hours because of the glare on the ice. The Stadium Series game at Yankee Stadium between the Rangers and Devils was delayed about 40 minutes for the same reason.

On Tuesday afternoon, a sunny day, the glare was pretty severe until about 2:45 p.m. Eastern time; the game is scheduled for 1 p.m. The last thing the NHL wants is to have to push the game into the evening (as the 2011 game in Pittsburgh was because of freezing rain), where it would be competing with the College Football Playoff semifinals.

“I remember at Wrigley Field, it was really bright for the practice day,” Sharp said. “I thought that would be difficult to play [in]. Obviously, the snow at Soldier Field changed the setting of the game, and forced you to play a little different. So I would say the weather is the biggest challenge. If it’s bright, cloudy, windy, rainy, snowy — who knows? So we’ll try to be prepared for everything.”

Media, Capitals alumni and a few VIPs — including U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley, wearing a Winter Classic Hawks jersey with a No. 5 (his district) on the back — played a game in the late afternoon on Tuesday, the first time the ice surface was really tested. It received positive reviews.

But these outdoor games, particularly the Winter Classic, aren’t about perfect conditions and meticulously crafted ice. Yes, the game counts just like all the indoor ones do. But players on both sides are willing to sacrifice a little comfort for a big experience.

Former Hawks and current Capitals winger Troy Brouwer talked about how he once skated along a frozen street to a rink near his aunt and uncle’s house in Red Deer when he was 5 or 6 years old, and played “all night long.” Those are the memories the Winter Classic is meant to evoke (along with the millions of dollars it’s meant to generate).

“We know we played last year, but every time is different, at a different place,” Hossa said. “So there is always something new to look forward to. Playing outside always reminds you of when you were a little kid, and always looking forward to it. One game out of 82, it’s not bad.”

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

Twitter: @marklazerus