Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Playing ice hockey in the snow & ice? How clever!

It had all the makings of a memorable New Year’s Day sporting event. Yesterday in Buffalo, some 72,217 fans braved sleet, snow, and a wind chill in the low 20’s to fill Ralph Wilson Stadium, home of the Buffalo Bills football team. Some of the players wore toques under their helmets for some extra warmth. The announcers were all bundled in heavy coats and constant meteorological updates were provided by an on-scene weather reporter. All in all it was a great day to play hockey.

Hockey? Outside? In a football stadium? Damn skippy!!!

Yesterday was the game everyone in my social circle has been talking about for the past 4 months. The 2008 Amp Energy NHL Winter Classic (say that 3 times fast) had the Buffalo Sabres hosting the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first-ever regular-season hockey game to be played outdoors in the United States. Back on November 22, 2003 the Edmonton Oilers hosted the Montreal Canadiens at Commonwealth Stadium (home of the Edmonton Eskimos football team) in front of 57, 167 brave souls who endured wind chills of -22 (yeah, MINUS 22) to see the game.

The first ever outdoors NHL game was an exhibition pre-season game between the Los Angeles Kings and the New York Rangers, held in 1991 outside Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, not exactly a hardship for the players or the fans.

This year’s game broke the all-time attendance record for an NHL hockey game hands-down, especially considering the league average is about 18,000 per game in the stands at most hockey arenas. It took nine days for crews to build the rink in the middle of the football stadium, and the hardy fans showed up hours in advance to tailgate and party. The game itself had been sold out for weeks, with some tickets going for over a thousand dollars.

But isn’t it crazy to play a hockey game outdoors? No way!

Most of the players grew up playing outside, on frozen lakes and ponds, or on home-made rinks in flooded back yards. This was a nostalgic trip down memory lane for these guys, and many were quoted as saying they felt like a little kid again. The temperatures weren’t that bad for most of the players, as they work up a good sweat skating around. The goalies however were mostly stationary and had to worry about muscles going cold. To their credit and benefit, both starting goalies had prior experience with outdoor games, Ty Conklin of the Pittsburgh Penguins played for the Oilers in the 2003 Heritage Classic game, and Sabres netminder Ryan Miller played for the Michigan State University Spartans against the University of Michigan Wolverines in the game that started the trend, the “Cold War” game on October 6, 2001in front of 74,544 at the Michigan State football stadium. The stadium was filled to 103.4% of capacity.

After being led onto the ice by bagpipes, and a flyover by US Army Blackhawk helicopters (a common sight at baseball & football events but not at hockey games) the action got underway amidst falling snow and slushy ice conditions. The game crew had to constantly clear and repair the ice, which was described by one player as like “playing in mud”, but by all accounts the players and the fans absolutely loved the party-like atmosphere. The teams both wore “throwback” uniforms, vintage jersey designs as a nod to nostalgia, with Buffalo wearing the white, blue and gold jerseys last used regularly during the 1995-96 season with the galloping buffalo logo. The Penguins wore powder blue and black uniforms dating to their teams of the 1970s.At the end of regulation play, the score was tied at 1-1, and when overtime didn’t settle the match, the game went to a sudden death shootout, always a dramatic and exciting conclusion to a game.

In the end it was a perfect Hollywood finish, with the game-winning goal scored by Sidney Crosby, the 20-year old captain of the Penguins. “Sid the Kid” is hailed by most as the new torch-bearer of Wayne Gretzky’s legacy. If anyone can carry on where The Great One left off, The Next One can.

There are tentative plans to have another outdoor game featuring Boston College, Boston University, Michigan and Michigan State held at Fenway Park, but with all the renovations being done at Fenway, chances of that are iffy. Talks are also underway to determine whether a game at Yankee Stadium between the New York Rangers and the New York Islanders would be possible. Michigan and Michigan State have discussed an outdoor rematch at Michigan Stadium and the Detroit Red Wings have looked into hosting a game at Detroit's Ford Field. I personally think that an outdoor game between Boston University and the University of Maine, my alma mater, would be amazing.

Rumors have also circulated of a possible outdoor game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Philadelphia Flyers to take place at Penn State's Beaver Stadium in the '08-'09 season and possibly annually thereafter. Beaver Stadium's seating capacity of over 100,000 will likely lead to broken attendance records for all outdoor hockey games.

All of this exposure is great for hockey. It brings awareness and publicity to an awesome sport that has sufferred in recent years from chronic underexposure. I for one look forward to the possibility of annual outdoor games. I recorded the game on my DVR and watched it again this afternoon after work to savor the event again. I’ll trade 32 college football bowl games for one Winter Classic any day!

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