ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. – The Buffalo Sabres were halfway through their practice on the rink in Ralph Wilson Stadium on Monday afternoon when coach Lindy Ruff canned the monotonous drills and let his players play shinny.
“I wanted them to get back the feeling of playing pond hockey,” Ruff explained. “It felt like the right thing to do, and they had a great time.” Millionaire pros were acting like kids.
“That was awesome, it really was,” Ruff said of the unique outdoor experience. “It kind of gets you back to your roots.”
It’ll be an awesome sight, too, when as many as 73,000 hockey fans fill the NFL stadium to watch the NHL Winter Classic on Tuesday (1 p.m. ET), which will be the second outdoor game in NHL history. The first one, the 2003 Heritage Classic in Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium, attracted a crowd of 57,167 and this will be an even bigger show.
The Pittsburgh Penguins practised after the Sabres – coach Michel Therrien stuck with his basic drills – and superstar centre Sidney Crosby wore a wide grin during most of 75-minute-long session as boyhood memories of playing shinny outdoors flooded back.
“The ice was pretty good,” said Crosby. “Probably right at the end it started to get a little bit chunky, but I think that’s normal with the weather”.
“I think they’ve done a pretty good job.”
There were a couple of holes in the ice surface, and it was getting slightly slushy by the time both practices ended, but the eight-man NHL facilities crew headed by Dan Craig expressed confidence any problems would be ironed out by game time.
“They still have some time to adjust if they need to,” said Crosby. “All in all, I think it’s been pretty smooth and they’ve done a great job.”
From 10 to 15 centimetres of snow was expected to fall overnight and Tuesday morning. The game-time temperature is expected to be around 0 C. Wind might become a concern. With the field below ground level, winds can swirl around the cavernous bowl.
“I found it was a little harder (than usual) to charge up the ice,” Sabres defenceman Brian Campbell said.
There was only a light wind during the practices but gusts exceeding 25 kilometres an hour Tuesday could be a hardship for players during the game.
“I’m not worrying about it,” said Campbell. “If it’s windy, it’s windy.”
“It’ll be the same for both teams.”
If the NHL finds it necessary to postpone the game, a 7 p.m. ET Wednesday start is the backup scenario.
Most of the players wore head covering under their helmets to protect their necks from the cold, and Sabres goalie Ryan Miller had a tuque on top of his helmet.
“Practice was a little more playful than it’s been in a while,” said Miller.
It snowed lightly during Buffalo’s practice but the white stuff stopped falling for the Penguins.
With the temperature hovering around the freezing mark, the players would have stayed on skates all afternoon if they’d been allowed. It’s balmy compared to the minus-20 C deep freezer in which the Heritage Classic was played.
“It was neat to wheel around out there,” said Campbell, who will have a large contingent from his hometown of Strathroy, Ont., on hand.
Heaters in the players’ benches keep feet warm.
It is a vast venue for a hockey game.
“The rink felt small because it’s in such a big place,” said Campbell.
Crosby said he “felt tiny” on the ice.
Campbell said he wouldn’t mind playing in snow.
“I hope it comes down,” he said. “Why not?”
He’ll have a couple of extra sticks available so he can change sticks often because of snow build-up on the blade, he said.
A good percentage of the crowd will be from southern Ontario, where many of the Sabres grew up.
“I know a ton of people who are coming from home,” said Buffalo forward Danny Paille of Welland, Ont., who loved every minute of playing shinny outdoors for the first time since he was a boy.
“I hadn’t felt like that in a while,” said Paille. “It was great.”
The Penguins’ Jordan Staal grew up with a backyard rink on the family farm in Thunder Bay, Ont., skating in minus-30 C at times, and he skated outdoors there last Christmas, but he’d never been on ice in a football stadium.
“I was in shock,” he said of his reaction when he first stepped onto the ice. “Just the view of the stands . . . I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like with the place packed and people screaming.”
“We have two young teams with a lot of talent,” Miller said. “Hopefully, everybody gets to showcase a little bit of their talent – and the Penguins not so much.”
The players were all smiling after the dress rehearsal.
“It’s a big stage, but you have to have fun with this,” said Crosby. “This is a unique experience. You don’t get this chance very often so you want to enjoy it.”
Ruff couldn’t agree more.
“The idea is absolutely fabulous,” he said. “We are creatures of habit and to get out of the routine for a game like this, I’m telling you . . . it was just so cool to be out there”.
“I think this is an unbelievable (event) and I’m not even going to be playing. For the players, I think it’s a thrill of a lifetime to be in a game like this, centre stage in a great facility.”
After months of hype, the day to play has finally arrived.
“To finally get it on, it’s just great,” said Buffalo centre Derek Roy. “We’re going to savour every moment of it.”
The teams will wear retro uniforms – the Penguins in their old powder blue and the Sabres donning the cross-sabred sweaters worn 20 years ago.
Ty Conklin starts in goal for the Penguins, giving him the distinction of being the only goalie to play in both outdoor NHL games. He was Edmonton’s goalie for the Heritage Classic.
The novelty of the event aside, two big points are at stake for two teams that have had their ups and downs this season.
“It’s a really neat experience to be a part of, but (Tuesday) will be all business, whatever the atmosphere around us is, because we need the two points,” said Staal.
So do the Sabres.
As dusk darkened the stadium, the freshly resurfaced ice glistened under a grey sky.