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Sabres, Penguins fans arrive early, soak in experience of Winter Classic

The Hockey News

The Hockey News

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. - Ryan Miller and the rest of the players on the ice for the NHL's Winter Classic were in awe playing in front of a league-record 71,217 spectators.

"I wanted to take time to look around and take in the whole experience," said the Buffalo Sabres goalie, who did just that on New Year's Day. "Everybody seemed to be either standing up or dancing or swaying and chanting.

"It was a cool experience. Everybody was so into it and dialled in to watching a hockey game. It was kind of a party atmosphere, everyone in different sections interacting and laughing and having a good time.

"That's what we feel hockey is all about."

It snowed heavily at times but the players and the big crowd in Ralph Wilson Stadium didn't mind at all. The second regular-season game in NHL history played outdoors was a big hit with everybody involved.

The Pittsburgh Penguins won 2-1 in a shootout. It ended as if scripted by the league's head office with the last scheduled skater in the shootout being Sidney Crosby, the sport's brightest young star, who put the puck behind Miller to end it.

During the early minutes of play, players were squinting to keep snow out of their eyes so they could see the puck.

The temperature was hovering around the freezing mark when the puck was dropped but a brisk wind made it feel colder. A few centimetres of snow fell overnight and after a morning lull it was snowing heavily when the game began.

Zambonis sped around the ice halfway through the first period to clear away snow. It let up before the end of the first period but the fan fervour didn't. Most in the lower bowl stood for the entire game.

When Brian Campbell scored for Buffalo to tie the score 1-1 early in the second period, the pro-Sabres crowd had its first chance to scream approval.

"It was a tough game to play," said Pittsburgh coach Michel Therrien. "The snow, some rain at one point, the wind - conditions were demanding for the players."

Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said the ice was "a little like curling ice" because wet snow landing on it was freezing on impact and creating a slight pebbling effect.

"It was a great day," said Ruff. "I'd love to do it again.

"I thought it was awesome. Everything was good until the last shot."

Earlier, when the players emerged from a tunnel in the home park of the NFL's Buffalo Bills for the warmup, bagpipers puffed up their cheeks and children who had been playing shinny on a small patch of ice behind the temporary NHL-sized rink tapped their sticks to salute the stars as they headed to the big ice.

The crowd roared when continent-wide TV coverage kicked in at 1 p.m. ET.

The weather was balmy compared to the Heritage Classic in Edmonton that drew 57,167 to a minus-19 refrigerator that was Commonwealth Stadium in November 2003.

Most of the players use composite sticks so, with the snowfall apt to make them slippery to hold, equipment managers covered the spares to keep them dry. Heaters were inside the benches to ensure players didn't get cold feet. Some of the Buffalo players wore black smudge under the eyes to help if any glare developed, but it was overcast most of the way.

Thousands tailgated in parking lots before the game.

Glen King brought his family - and a hockey net, strapped to the roof of his car - across the Peace Bridge from neighbouring Fort Erie. Eight-year-old Matthew King and his pals used the net in a ball hockey game in a muddy lot.

"We came to see Sidney Crosby because he's the best player in the NHL," Matthew said.

Brent Mahoney and his six-year-old son Liam also were in the group from Fort Erie, and Sharon King and Colleen Radovanovics were busy getting sausages and hot dogs ready to cook on a camp stove.

"We brought milk and cookies for the boys," said Radovanovics.

Five men who motored north from Pittsburgh in Dan Day's pickup truck had more potent beverages in their hands.

"We only brought the necessities," said a smiling Garrett Zajdel, wearing a vintage Penguins power blue sweater like the ones worn by Crosby and his teammates against the Sabres.

"I wouldn't miss this for the world," said Zajdel.

Mark Kasniak and a few other locals were among the first tailgaters to arrive.

"We wanted to get in early to get the fire going," said Kasniak.

They stood around a roaring blaze in a barrel and fed it from a pile of smashed pallets. The lower back of Kasniak's coat was singed from getting too close to the barrel.

"This is awesome," said Kasniak, swigging from a can of beer. "Since the (NFL's) Bills never do anything good, let the Sabres have their day."

Long lines formed at tents where shirts, hats and other merchandise was selling sold. There were various displays, face-painting, ice sculptures and a rock band. Bundled-up fans strolled around taking it all in before the gates opened.

Rob Higgins of Toronto, who drove across the border with two friends, soaked up the atmosphere.

"What strikes me about what was going on outside the stadium is the difference between an American and a Canadian event," Higgins said of the tailgate scene. "It's amazing how civilized this is.

"There's a sense of community. It's just a great event."

He had tickets to the Toronto Maple Leafs' home game Tuesday night and was hoping border traffic jams wouldn't keep him from attending both games. A buddy handed him an amber beverage.

"It's a good day to hang out with the boys," said a smiling Steven Collins.

Dan Wozniak and his daughter, Lily, got to their spots in the upper tier's top row, used a towel to dry water from the metal bench, and took in the view.

"It's no worse than being in the last row at the arena," said Wozniak, who lives just a few blocks from the stadium. "This is great.

"I wish they'd have a game like this every year here. I'd come every year."

Brian Sargent, from neighbouring Lockport, also was in the upper tier a long, long way from the action, but he didn't mind at all.

"It's a great view," he said.

It was a great way to spend time with his 12-year-old granddaughter, Paige, who brought him along after buying two US$40 tickets on the Internet for the lofty perch.

"It's sweet," she said of being at the most hyped hockey event of the season.

This game, as was the case with the Heritage Classic, was all about celebrating the sport's roots and exposing it to a vast TV audience. Both events were huge successes.

"During breaks, I just looked around," said Ruff. "It was incredible.

"I thought it was great for the game, and to hell with the cynics."

The largest crowd for a hockey game in North America remains 74,544 in Spartan Stadium on Oct. 6, 2001, for the college Cold War between Michigan and Michigan State in East Lansing, Mich.


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