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"This Is Going to Be Big!"

The first and only time that the National Hockey League ever staged an outdoor hockey game was on November 22, 2003. On that night, 57,167 fans filled Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium to see their Oilers play the Montreal Canadiens. By the end of the game wind chills dipped to 22 below zero.

The league and the Sabres aren’t hoping for a repeat of that scenario, but weather will be a factor and a challenge. Buffalo will become the epicenter of the hockey universe this New Year’s Day, when the Buffalo Sabres take on the Pittsburgh Penguins at 1pm at Ralph Wilson Stadium in what is being billed as the “Winter Classic 2008.” The game will be televised live across North America, here in the United States on NBC and on CBC and RDS (the French language network) in Canada.

On Monday the league held a full-blown news conference on the field at Ralph Wilson Stadium, and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman was showing a lot of love towards Buffalo and its hockey team. “This is a wonderful hockey town. It has become a model franchise. What better place than Buffalo to stage such an event,” said Bettman.

Bettman spoke at length about the challenges of staging this sort of game in a large setting, and the risks involved with the weather being such a variable. “This is a massive undertaking, putting in the piping, getting the ice up, configuring the boards and the glass,” Bettman admitted. While praising the bucolic late summer day in Orchard Park, Bettman said, “We are hoping that come New Year’s Day it is not as nice.” The ideal conditions for such a game are temperatures in the low to mid 20s with overcast skies. “We checked the Farmer’s Almanac, and if they’re correct, we should do fine.”

Nonetheless, the league is prepared for various scenarios to delay the game, including holding back the start time in the event of liquid precipitation or too warm temperatures; in the event that the game is not playable on New Year’s Day, January 2 would serve as an alternate play date. Said Bettman, “We have a list of variables in mind. We will be in constant consultation with the teams, in case we have to postpone or reschedule.”

Sharing the dais on Monday was Sabres owner Tom Golisano, who gave full credit to his managing partner Larry Quinn for coming up with the idea of such an event and moving plans forward. “This is all on Larry,” said Golisano. “He knew that Buffalo would be the perfect place to have such an event and he made sure it would happen.”

Golisano told the assembled press that he had originally planned a vacation over the holidays to Naples, Florida, but cancelled his trip once this event became a certainty. “No way I was going to miss this one,” he said. After the conference, Golisano spoke of a game a long time ago that he had tickets for and decided to pass up, and to this day has huge regrets. “It was the ’56 World Series and I passed up a chance to go to the game,” he said. “Yeah, it was Don Larsen’s perfect game.”

An ebullient Larry Quinn stated that the 2003 Heritage Classic had demands for over 950,000 tickets. “We expect to do real well with this game,” said Quinn. “It’s going to put Buffalo on the map. When’s the last time we did the first thing in history in Buffalo?”

Although this is a Sabres home game, the event is being coordinated by the NHL and the league will derive all its revenue, save for the total that the Sabres would have generated had this game been played at HSBC Arena. “It’s not a money maker for us. The costs for putting this on are staggeringly high,” said Bettman.

Tickets went on sale this past Tuesday. Seats were priced from $29-$225 although the first few rows of the lower bowl have been designated “obstructed view” seats due to the inability to see the total range of puck movement on the playing surface. Those seats were priced at $10.

When sales began, tickets didn’t last long, with the Ticketmaster Web site jammed with requests and fans lined up at the Bills and Sabres ticket offices. Forty-one thousand seats were sold within half an hour, and the game is a sellout.

The absolute record for an outdoor hockey game was in East Lansing, Michigan back in 2001, when the Spartans played the Michigan Wolverines before 74,554 fans. Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller was in net for Michigan State that day and remembers the game well. “The excitement, the roar of the crowd, you had to be there to really feel it. This is going to be a playoff atmosphere,” said Miller.

With any luck, we will eclipse that 74,554 number, in what should surely become one of the epic sporting events ever to take place in Western New York.