The Buffalo Sabres and the Pittsburgh Penguins will meet Jan. 1 in an outdoor game at Ralph Wilson Stadium, the home of the NFL’s Bills. The game is expected to surpass the NHL single-game attendance record that was set in November 2003 when the Montreal Canadiens and the Edmonton Oilers drew 57,167 to The Heritage Classic at Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium.
Ralph Wilson has a capacity of more than 73,000.
“There is something very special about taking hockey out into the elements, back to its roots, back to the place where so many boys and girls first learned to love the game,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said Monday on the football stadium’s bright green turf, which will be transformed by way of a costly, complicated process into an ice rink.
Preparation, which includes installing a refrigeration system to make the ice, will start the day after the Bills’ Dec. 23 home game. Dan Craig, the NHL’s ice expert, will oversee the installation.
Buffalo was chosen for its dependably cold winters and proximity to Pittsburgh, whose fans are expected to make the 350-kilometre trip in droves. The NHL already is making plans to organize bus excursions and hold hotel rooms.
“The average temperature in the beginning of January, end of December is 25 degrees (-3 C),” Bettman said. “That’s exactly what we’re hoping for. A little overcast … We prefer that there be no lake-effect snow or any other precipitation.”
A normal Jan. 1 snowfall in Buffalo is less than a centimetre, according to National Weather Service records. Temperatures have varied from -17 C in 1970 to 17 in 1985.
Sabres goalie Ryan Miller was in net for Michigan State for its 2001 outdoor “Cold War” with Michigan, when shadows and wind were unique challenges.
“I got off the ice after that game and I was red in the face windburned and my toes were frozen,” Miller said. “I’m hoping I learned a little bit and can make some adjustments and figure out how to stay warm.”
Penguins president David Morehouse said that his players were excited by the prospect of playing outdoors.
“We have a young team so it’s not that long ago that our young players were actually playing on ponds,” he said, “whether it be Sidney Crosby in Canada, Evgeni Malkin in Russia or Ryan Whitney in the United States … so they’re very excited and enthusiastic.”
“I think it’s going to be a great experience for everyone,” Crosby said in Montreal ahead of Monday night’s pre-season game against the Canadiens. “We all watched the Edmonton-Montreal game. We’ve all prepared for this at some point in our careers, playing outside, so I think it’s going to be a lot of fun for us and for the fans.”
Crosby said he wasn’t expecting the league to hold another outdoor game.
“There’s a lot of other teams in the league and for us to be a part of it, we feel fortunate for the opportunity,” he said.
Bettman said the NHL will pick up the tab for the event, expected to hit “well into the seven figures.” A contingency plan is in the works in case the weather does not co-operate.
“We were overdue for another (outdoor game) but we needed the right place, the right teams and the right time and we found them all,” Bettman said..
“Plain and simple, we are doing this to have some fun,” Bettman added.
Tickets were set to go on sale Tuesday.