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Blackhawks, Capitals embracing the quirks of the Classic

WASHINGTON — Bryan Bickell didn’t crash into the boards or anything when he looped around the back of the net after firing his first shot at Wednesday’s practice at Nationals Park.

But he kind of felt like he was going to.

“You’re used to having a fan right there, a foot away from the glass, and you use your peripheral vision, and you can’t quite judge it,” Bickell said. “You think the boards are closer than they really are.”

Like college basketball players going from a small gym to a massive stadium in the Final Four, hockey players have to adapt to an entirely different visual experience when they move from a claustrophobic arena into a cavernous baseball or football stadium. It’s one of the many quirks that come with the Winter Classic, in which the Blackhawks will face the Washington Capitals on Thursday afternoon.

“There are certain things that kind of throw you off, that nobody thinks about,” said Capitals winger Troy Brouwer, who played in the 2009 Winter Classic at Wrigley Field when he was with the Hawks. “Like the depth perception when you’re shooting on the net. You’re used to something solid right behind the net, [and now] it’s a couple hundred feet until there’s something. It throws you off a little bit.”

In fact, both Capitals coach Barry Trotz and Hawks defensemen Brent Seabrook wondered if the rink was even regulation size, the vastness of the stadium dwarfing the 200-foot rink.

“Your brain and your visuals are off,” Trotz said.

That’s hardly the only thing that separates the Winter Classic from the 1,227 indoor games that will be played this season. The biggest concern for Thursday’s edition is the sun. For the second straight day on Wednesday, there was a severe glare on the rink until about 2:30 p.m. local time (with it popping up again briefly around 3 p.m. in the left-field corner). The Capitals practiced in the sun, the Hawks practiced later in the shade. NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said the league won’t decide until Thursday whether to delay the game until the rink is in the shade.

A last-minute delay would only throw players — notorious creatures of habit — further out of their usual gameday rhythm.

“Only if we’re sitting here [in the stadium] waiting,” Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “If we get here and we have to wait for hours upon end, then I don’t know what we’ll do. Play a game of cards or something. If we know ahead of time, I’m sure they’ll just bump the bus back and we’ll adjust our eating time, I guess.”

The Hawks and Capitals have even discussed the possibility of switching ends at the 10-minute mark of each period, or just the third period, to better balance the sun’s effect while facing the first-base side.

Typically with the outdoor games, the elements are the biggest concern. Many hockey players are incredibly meticulous about their equipment — what they wear, how they sharpen their skates, what sticks they use. A heavy snowstorm like in the Soldier Field Hawks-Penguins game on March 1 can throw all of that out of whack — compression shorts and a T-shirt replaced by turtlenecks, toques, long johns and extra socks. Niskanen, then with the Penguins, had to remove his visor at Soldier Field because it was caked in snow.

Fortunately for both teams, the forecast is low-40s and clear skies. So the only changes will be maybe a little eye-black for the glare, and new gloves to match the throwback jerseys.

“I think Johnny’s IceHouse is much colder than today,” Marian Hossa said after Wednesday’s practice.

There are still countless X-factors that could change everything. The wind could pick up. The temperature could drop. The ice — deemed surprisingly hard and fast by both teams on Wednesday — could get slushy in the sun. Forty-thousand fans could make the unusual visuals even more dizzying. Lengthy pregame ceremonies could leave players cold and tight for puck-drop.

But it’s part of the appeal of the game — the quirkiness, the unpredictability, the oddity of it all. Even if it does count for two points, same as any other regular-season game.

“It’s still a great experience,” Hossa said. “It doesn’t matter how many times you play it. It’s still awesome.”

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

Twitter: @marklazerus