Darren Eliot
Tuesday December 23rd, 2008

Thanks to major snowstorms, travel the last couple of days has been a challenge -- especially if you were trying to get to Buffalo. Just ask the Pittsburgh Penguins, who had to bus in for Monday's game against the Sabres. I ended up flying to Toronto and driving in to cover the game for Versus -- this after several flight cancellations, a bump while on standby, and the all- encompassing "computer glitch."

But this isn't a travelogue, nor is it about me. It's about holiday hockey, which for the players is about trying to stay focused on the task at hand while dealing with all of the distractions -- family, travel home, gift-giving, etc. -- that this time of year presents. After all, despite all of the generosity and good will in the air, important standings points are still up for grabs over the next ten days or so in games that historically feature unlikely heroes.

For instance, after teams get Christmas Eve and Christmas off, watch for the back-up goalies to get the nod as the schedule resumes on December 26. That day traditionally has been one that most of backups can annually circle as a given start for them -- especially for the road teams -- although this season has thrust some long-time reserves into starting roles. Scott Clemmensen in New Jersey, for example, likely would have finally gotten off the bench in any other season. Now he's the Devils' No. 1, so Kevin Weekes can hope for some action.

Further, beware of the unheralded call-up. Watch for some game-winning goals by guys who will be back in the AHL -- despite their exploits -- as soon as the injured or banged-up regulars return from a holiday respite sometime in the new year.

It's a sleepy time -- the dead of winter, really -- but the NHL has been trying to quickly light things up by embracing the festive holiday reality. That means presenting the Winter Classic on New Year's Day. The 2009 edition pits the defending Stanley Cup champion Red Wings against the upstart Blackhawks in Chicago's iconic Wrigley Field, which happens to be one of more notoriously windy venues in sports. Which brings me back to weather and the City of Buffalo.

Last season's Winter Classic in Ralph Wilson Stadium was fabulous theater as well as a compelling live spectacle. It was cold and snowy, but not blustery. The snow falling as the world's best players skated around playing pond hockey with the game's most marketable star -- Sidney Crosby -- netting the game-winner in a shootout made the moment magical. The spectacle provided the NHL with some of its most indelible images from the past twenty years.

There's a very good chance that robust winter meteoroligical conditions will be a factor at Wrigley. But no matter what the weather, anything that can get hockey's pulse going again while it warms the heart of hockey fans of every age is worth the pursuit.

In the meantime, holiday hockey remains fraught with details unique to the time of season -- like bus rides instead of chartered planes, and day-of-game travel immediately following Christmas instead of arriving the night before. The bottom line is that everyone just has to go with the flow a little bit more while they try not to curse the cold and snow too loudly. Ice, well, hockey players and fans tend to like ice -- just not when they have to travel on it.

Cheers to all.

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