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Sidney Crosby and the snow is a win-win for NHL in outdoor game

The Hockey News

The Hockey News

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. - The Buffalo snow and Sid the Kid's show: Call it the NHL's ultimate win-win.

Hockey not only stepped out of its climate-controlled arena New Year's Day, it totally left the building. Sure, the Winter Classic on Tuesday between Crosby's Penguins and the Buffalo Sabres was a gimmick, but it worked.

It worked for the 71,000-plus people inside snowy Ralph Wilson Stadium and for the curiosity seekers who tuned in on NBC. Snow heightened the visual scene on site and on television. When Crosby scored the winning goal in a shootout, the league's top player and drawing card took centre stage in a driving storm.

"In an atmosphere like this, I think anyone - even just the average fan watching - has to be interested in something like that," Crosby said. "I think the game did a job of bringing that attention."

The game earned a 2.6 overnight rating and a five share on NBC, despite going up against several U.S. college football bowl games, the best ratings for a regular-season NHL game in more than a decade.

Only three seasons removed from the lockout that forced the cancellation of an entire hockey year, the NHL is trying. It is trying to find new ways to capture attention and create avenues to make new fans.

If nothing else, it was a sight to see.

"I'd love to do it again," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "I thought it was very good for the game.

"It really brings you back to the roots."

The elements were definitely a factor, and will be every time the NHL ventures outdoors. The Winter Classic was the second by the league during the regular season, and the first in the United States.

Snow fell before the game and through half the first period. A wintry mix prevailed through a good chunk of the second, and a heavy batch of snow off the lake poured down for the final five minutes of regulation, all of overtime and during the shootout that wrapped up with Crosby's deciding goal in a 2-1 Penguins victory.

If criticism is going to be levied, it will be about the tough playing conditions as accumulating snow slowed the flow of the puck - even causing it to come to dead stops in mid-glide - and made skating slow, plodding and difficult.

Once players got through a sluggish first period and became acclimated to the ice, the pace picked up. Each period required an extra Zamboni run near the midpoint, but those delays were kept to a minimum.

"I took time to look around, and I wanted to take in the whole experience," Sabres goalie Ryan Miller said. "Everybody seemed to be either standing up or dancing or swaying and chanting.

"For us, it was a little weird at first. First period was obviously not the best conditions. I thought it improved as the game went."

More troubling was a series of three holes that pocked a row across the ice in front of the benches. Players spun out at times, and officials also took sudden flops. Luckily, there were no injuries because if someone had gotten hurt, it is safe to assume this event would have had no future. Now, expect more, maybe even one or two a season.

The Heritage Classic in Edmonton in 2003 was played in sub-zero temperatures that caused the ice to chip. Snow and sleet present their own problems. Outdoor games will work only in cold-weather sites where being outside makes a difference and presents a challenge pleasing to the eye. Playing on ice in the Florida sun won't carry the same charm.

"This was a memorable and outstanding afternoon," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said. "This is the type of event we certainly will be looking at doing in the future."

The league will have to walk a fine line. A good thing is nice to repeat. Too much of a good thing is overkill, taking away any novelty.

NBC presented the idea of the New Year's Day game as the start to its NHL coverage this season. There seems to be a place for it in coming years to offset some of the glut of bowl games.

The lasting image of the Winter Classic should be Crosby's game-winning celebration, not the snow that blanketed the surface or the work needed to keep the ice playable.

"We got some pretty decent weather. It wasn't too cold," Crosby said. "I thought they did a pretty job of trying to maintain the ice.

"Obviously when you win it's a lot nicer."

The NHL finally has something it can be proud of. When the early flurries became a steady, swirling snow, the players reverted to their days as kids playing on backyard ponds.

"It seemed like a carnival. It was great," Penguins goalie Ty Conklin said. "I think if you really had to nitpick and ask for one thing, maybe a little bit less snow.

"But that probably even added to it. It was pretty good."


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