Him. MVP. 8-Bal. Whatever you want to call him, Lamar Jackson has cemented himself as the frontrunner for the best player in the NFL for the 2023 season.
SEATTLE — Jonathan Marchessault loved baseball as a kid.
The Conn Smythe champion played competitive ball until he was 16, and a young Marchessault often watched games broadcast from T-Mobile Park, home of the Seattle Mariners and site of the 2024 Winter Classic.
“One of my favourite players was Ichiro Suzuki. I was kind of a fan of Seattle back then. I was looking around (the ballpark) to see if there were any pictures of him,” Marchessault says Sunday, following his first hockey practice on a Major League infield.
“(Ichiro) was not doing a lot of home runs, and I was the same. I was not a powerful hitter, but I was always on base. So, I liked the way he played.”
Eye black is smeared on Marchessault’s cheeks. A boyish smile is plastered on his face. He is sitting in the visitors’ clubhouse. The fluorescent softball he carries with him to roll his muscles is in his hand.
No, the hockey player shakes his head, the Classic doesn’t mean more to him because of his affinity for Suzuki.
“What means more to me is to be here with my family this time,” Marchessault says. “Compared to Lake Tahoe and being in quarantine.”
Ah, yes, the original Golden Knights outdoor appearance was in 2021. No fans. And so much sun that the sheet at Lake Tahoe melted. The game between the Knights and Colorado Avalanche had to be delayed more than eight hours.
“From that point, everything can go better,” Marchessault says with a grin.
The ice will be a touch sticky on New Year’s Day, to be sure, and Vegas coach Bruce Cassidy expects a few pucks to get lost on the darker-than-normal centre ice logo. (Coach’s tip: Pass the puck harder than usual.)
Still, the forecast is for a beautiful day at the sold-out ballpark: 12°C and sunny.
Not a bad way to spend a holiday.
“Good weather — that’s what you’re always hoping for,” says Cassidy, who has coached in a few of these splashy events and encourages his players to savour them. “These are special moments. Soak it all in. You don’t get to do this all the time.”
The out-of-market fascination with modern skaters donning old-school brown gloves and goalies topping their masks with toques may have waned with the sheer volume of NHL outdoor games over the past couple decades.
But on site, in town, the Winter Classic is very much a capital-E event. The estimated economic impact of the Classic to Seattle: $30 million. Not quite Swifty money, but not too shabby.
Which is partly why the tradition continues.
“You know, I thought when we went to the (Stanley Cup) finals it was a really big, serious thing and really special thing,” Vegas winger Keegan Kolesar says, after the family skate at T-Mobile. “Then you get moments like that, where you see all the (players’) kids running around. You’re playing with them. You see the families. And it’s another special moment that you’ll remember.”
That’s what Marchessault is banking on for his own kids, all four of whom got to rip around for a Sunday skate, weaving in and out of the legs of Dad and a rink full of Stanley Cup champions — on the same field where Ichiro would buzz around the bases.
“It was awesome. Hopefully they know how special it is,” Marchessault says.
“Like, a lot of kids would kill to be in that position. And, lucky enough, mine were there. So just happy to be able to (bring them). It’s one of the reasons why I worked so hard — to give them opportunities like that.”
Fox’s Fast Five
• The Kraken (6-0-2) will be the second team to enter an outdoor game with an active point streak longer than six games. The host Boston Bruins entered the 2023 Winter Classic on a 7-0-3 rip.
“Seattle is playing as good as they have all year,” Cassidy says. “Our guys are going to be dialed in because of the environment we’re in.”
• Yes, the teams will arrive to the Classic in costume. So far, everyone is keeping mum, but the Golden Knights’ outfits were chosen by two of the team’s veterans.
• Shoutout to Kolesar for this multi-tasking power move:
• Both clubs’ No. 1 goaltenders, Seattle’s Philipp Grubauer and Vegas’ Adin Hill, are injured, opening the door for Joey Daccord and Logan Thompson to get the starting nods.
Journeyman Daccord was a fabulous story in December, going is 5-0-2 in his past seven appearances with a.949 save percentage and a shutout. On Monday, Daccord can break Martin Jones’ Kraken record for longest point streak by a goaltender.
Thompson, 26, thinks back to watching the annual Classic as a young boy in Calgary: “It’s like a dream come true. You feel like a kid.”
• Fun fact: Hockey participation in Washington state has nearly doubled since the birth of the Kraken, jumping from 6,793 players in 2020-21 to 11,876 in 2022-23. (Female participation more than doubled, from 943 to 1,936).