Wednesday, January 2, 2008

The First United States Outdoor NHL Game Was A Success

In creative attempts to keep NHL fans watching while simultaneously drawing in new fans, the NHL decided to try something new and different. The NHL decided to have the Buffalo Sabres and Ralph Wilson Stadium, home of the Buffalo Bills, host a game outdoors against the all-star Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins. This was a huge success and fans seemed to have had a fantastic experience.

"This is Buffalo," crowed Dan Barrett, of nearby Fort Erie, Ontario, while making his way through the parking lot as a light snow fell.

"Pass 'em around boys," someone was overheard saying, while distributing a handful of Jell-O shots.

There were tents and tuques (winter hats, as they're known in Canada), grills, gloves and Christmas cookies. There were Sabres flags flying from cars and vans. One group of fans gathered in a converted school bus and watched TV while being warmed by a propane heater.

Rather than Jim Kelly and Thurman Thomas jerseys, fans wore those of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Ryan Miller and Thomas Vanek.

Fans dressed in layers, began filtering into the 74,000-seat stadium once gates opened at 11 a.m., had it packed well before the opening faceoff, and sang along as the pregame band played the Neil Diamond classic, "Sweet Caroline."

And a very big cheer went up as both teams, led out by a bagpiper, came out of the end-zone tunnel and made their way to the rink for the pregame skate.

The crowd, announced at 71,217, stayed until the end, and included several young men who went shirtless for most of the game. Fans in the lower bowl stood throughout, and the cheers were most loud when the game went to a shootout.

"This is awesome!" said Michelle Adams as she settled into her seat in section 330, some 15 rows from the top of the top of the stadium. "This is so cool!"

Actually, it was relatively mild for Buffalo with temperatures at about 30 and, more important, little wind coming off nearby Lake Erie.

"They couldn't have picked a better town to have it in," added Elizabeth Brooks, who came prepared, with 18 pairs of hand-warmers stuffed into the pockets of her winter coat.

Not that she needed them.

"We know cold," Brooks said. "This isn't cold."

Penguins fans were enjoying themselves, too.

"I wouldn't miss it for anything," said Alex Greif, who made the three-hour drive from Pittsburgh earlier in the day.

Greif and his brother Karl purchased their tickets on e-Bay about two months ago. They spent $170 each on tickets that had a face value of $29, and sat eight rows from the top.

The view turned out to be very good, because they had a clear look at the entire ice sheet below. Fans sitting in the lower bowl had their sight lines partially obstructed by the boards.

"Everybody told us we wouldn't be able to see because we were so high, but I think it's wonderful," Alex Grief said.

Not that anything -- the view or their ticket price -- mattered.

"I couldn't care less," Alex Greif said about how much they paid for tickets. "It was worth it."

What about the game itself? Well, some snow for a setting, a shootout and Sid the Kid's winning goal added up to a perfect hockey day outside. The Penguins captain somehow saw space between Ryan Miller's pads as he shuffled through driving snow and gave Pittsburgh a 2-1 shootout win over the Buffalo Sabres at the outdoor Winter Classic in front of an NHL-record 71,217 fans on Tuesday.

Is this the solution to make hockey more aware to the masses? By having games outside in huge stadiums? Well, I don't know. NBA games are indoors and they have no problem attracting fans. However, this idea for the NHL proved to work and they should definitely set these events up more often. Anytime you can get tailgaters to party and hang out before events, you know you're putting on an a show worth attracting people.

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