January 01, 2008

Ty Conklin's breath poured out of his mask in the cold air at Ralph Wilson Stadium.

The steam rose from the sweat-filled head of the Pittsburgh Penguins' goalie in the warmth of the visitors locker room underneath the stadium that was a day away from being filled by more than 70,000 hockey fans.

If the NHL is playing outside, Conklin will find a way to be there.

Conklin will start Tuesday when the Penguins take on the Buffalo Sabres in the Winter Classic, the league's first outdoor game in the United States and second overall.

The first was called the Heritage Classic and it took place four years ago in Edmonton, Alberta, when Conklin and the Oilers were beaten 4-3 by the Montreal Canadiens.

"There was a lot of talk about it in Edmonton. It seemed like there was a minute-by-minute update on how the rink was going," Conklin said after practice Monday. "Now that it's here, guys are pretty excited."

Brian Campbell gingerly stuck his skate onto the ice like a swimmer dipping his toe into a cold pool.

The Buffalo Sabres' defenseman led his teammates onto the makeshift hockey rink for practice and was none the worse for wear. The anticipation and the trepidation seemed to be gone after the team's hourlong spin.

All that remained after months of hype was for the Sabres to play the Penguins.

"Once your face gets a little numb you feel fine," Campbell said. "The ears were cold a little bit, maybe a little frostbite on them, but that's all right."

The Sabres and Penguins tried various methods -- such as hand and feet warmers -- and pieces of gear to combat the temperatures that hovered around freezing during each club's only practice on a rink built at the home of the NFL's Buffalo Bills.

Sabres goalies Ryan Miller and Jocelyn Thibault each wore hats fashioned out of hockey socks on top of their masks. Penguins captain Sidney Crosby and several others went for hooded shirts that fit snugly over their ears and heads.

"I am still toying with the idea," said Penguins forward Adam Hall, who along with Miller played an outdoor game while at Michigan State. "I don't know if you ever get used to this stuff."

Thibault was happy with what he went out with and will be wearing his sock-hat again when his sits on the heated bench Tuesday, backing up Miller.

"It kept everything warm," Thibault said. "It kept my thoughts warm. I need that."

Any talk about the ice surface was positive, with many saying it was better than expected. Wind and sun glare also didn't pose much of an issue, and players and NHL officials openly hoped for a bit of snow overnight and something light during the game.

The forecast called for a high temperature of 36 with an 80 percent chance of rain or snow. A weather station inside the stadium showed a window should exist to get the game in once the puck drops shortly after 1 p.m.

"Hopefully we're all just kind of not aware of what's going on. There's a puck on the ice and you get to play," Miller said. "That's the sign of a good hockey player, when you can go out there and be in the moment and play."

The third period will be split in half to give each team equal time on both sides of the rink. Any wind that cropped up Monday seemed to blow toward the south end of the stadium, where the tunnel that leads to the dressing rooms is located.

Broadcasters for NBC and Canada's CBC plan to take advantage of camera stands on the field, generally used for football games, to call this one from the great outdoors.

If a postponement is necessary, the game will be shifted to Wednesday and will be played under the lights.

"Once you're out there, you bundle up and go out and play," Penguins forward Ryan Malone said. "There's nothing else to do but go out and play. That's the best part. I can't wait to get going."

The sun peeked through the clouds at times, and was replaced by spurts of snow flurries. Professional players felt like they were kids again, skating around as their visible breath filled the chilly air.

None seemed out of their element as they flew around the rink and shot pucks into the brand new nets that were whiter than the snow that surrounded the outside of the boards.

"As a kid, you don't really realize how cold you really are. You just go out there and play," said Buffalo forward Jason Pominville, a Quebec native. "As you get older, the cold kind of gets to you.

"I'm not soft, I'm just trying to keep myself warm."

Only a snowball's throw away, Marv Levy stepped down as general manager of the Bills. Inside the stadium where he enjoyed his greatest coaching success, the Sabres and Penguins made sports feel like a game again instead of business.

"It brings you back a bit when you're out there," Crosby said. "It is a big stage. It is a big game. It's a regular-season game, but at the same time, you don't get this chance very often so you want to enjoy it."

The Sabres come in on a three-game skid (0-2-1), including a 2-0 loss at Pittsburgh on Saturday in the first half of this most unusual home-and-home series. Buffalo, an Eastern Conference finalist the past two seasons, has 40 points through 37 games and is currently below the playoff cutoff.

The Penguins have played 38 games and have 42 points, good for seventh in the East and a third-place tie in the Atlantic Division.

"I know there is a lot of attention on this game," Penguins coach Michel Therrien said, "but from our standpoint, we've got to win."

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

AP-NY-01-01-08 0421EST

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