Jim Kelley
Wednesday January 2nd, 2008

When the first note in your notebook refers to game-time weather conditions, it hits you that you aren't settling in for just another hockey game. When your last note is in regards to fireworks and Sidney Crosby stickhandling through the snow en route to scoring the game-winning goal in a shootout because the goalie lost sight of the puck in the snow, you're pretty much certain of it.

For the record, it was 33.5 degrees Fahrenheit with a light snow falling and relatively light winds when the Buffalo Sabres hosted the Pittsburgh Penguins Monday in the first-ever outdoor National Hockey League game in the United States.

Not that it matters much to anyone who wasn't on the ice or among the sellout crowd of 71,217 at Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Stadium, but the Penguins won 2-1 in a game where conditions were both shaky and snowy -- and, at times, a little surreal. Still, when you're more interested in producing a spectacle and a made-for-TV event instead of another regular-season hockey game, not much else really mattered.

If there's a pro sports league that understands that better than the National Hockey League, it surely must be the brainchild of Vince McMahon.

The New Years' Day "Winter Classic" was, to paraphrase a National Football League coach Dennis Green, "exactly what the NHL thought it would be," an event, a spectacle and a public relations show with a little bit of hockey mixed in. And while there were virtually no NHL officials of prominence on hand to confirm that, any reports to the contrary would have to be classified as either not real or completely imagined.

"It was a unique experience," said Pittsburgh coach Michel Therein after his team and, Crosby, his burgeoning star, spoiled the party for the mostly pro-Buffalo crowd, all of whom were on their feet as the game went to overtime and beyond. Maybe they were excited, maybe they just needed to stomp their feet to stay warm and bush the swirling snow from their oversized outerwear; but they seemed to appreciate the fact that if they had it hard, the players had it harder and that neither group wanted to show any quit.

"It was a tough game to play no doubt," Therien added. "Probably the toughest game, condition-wise, no doubt ...The conditions were demanding for the players."

That was never more in evidence than in the third period and overtime when the notorious Lake Erie winds picked up and started swirling lake-effect snow in every direction. The snow, welcomed at first as enhancing the TV moment prior to the opening faceoff, started to be a problem late in the game. In addition, the ice itself broke down on far too many occasions, necessitating frequent repairs and virtually no comment from the crew that had nothing but praise for itself in the days leading up to the event.

Not that it mattered to the 70,000-plus in the stands and whatever audience NBC managed to pull on a day pretty much devoted to football -- morning, noon, and night.

"Let's do it again," said Santos Torreos, a Buffalo resident who kicked off the new year by scoring a ticket just hours before game time. He said afterward that he had "a great time."

"It was amazing and the best game I've ever been to. It wasn't cold and with the snow and all it was crazy. The only bad thing was that we lost." The players were a tad less enthusiastic but had no real complaints.

"Obviously, they had the Zamboni out there more than a few times (to clear snow off the ice)," said Sabres goalie Ryan Miller, "but obviously the fans enjoyed it. The conditions were tough at the start, but as it moved on you got used to it."

Most of the players made the same kind of cautious remarks, a mix between unbridled enthusiasm for the event and the crowd support, but a bit less for the in-game conditions brought on by the weather and what clearly was an ice surface that didn't measure up to game standards, even in buildings with lousy ice surfaces. One did get the sense that everyone felt fortunate both teams managed to avoid any serious injury.

Sabres coach Lindy Ruff, not one to mince words even at a league event said: "I loved it. On breaks, I made sure to look around and take it all in, there didn't seem to be an empty seat. I thought it was very good for the game. I may be dating myself here, but for most players (outdoors) is where it all started. I thought it was good for the game; it brought us back to our roots. It maybe wasn't the best game (conditions) what with the snow, but the atmosphere was terrific. I'd love to do it again."

Asked to comment on reports that the game was greeted with some cynicism, especially north of the border, Ruff, a Canadian by birth but a former Sabres player and the longest-serving coach in franchise history, seemed to speak for the league and everyone in attendance.

"The hell with the cynics," he said.

As darkness fell and the fans moved from the icy, cold aluminum seats to a massive tailgate party in the parking lots, it was clear he wasn't alone. "I had the time of my life," Torreos said. "It was amazing and something I'll tell my grandchildren about."

As spectacles go, it's hard to argue with that.

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