On January 1st, I was lucky enough to attend the first ever NHL Winter Classic, a game that pitted the Buffalo Sabres versus the Pittsburgh Penguins in an outdoor hockey game at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, New York.
As a Sabres season ticket holder, I was one of the fortunate ones who got tickets included with the rest of my seats for the year and I must say, this was a day I looked forward to right from the moment it was announced.
It lived up to every expectation. It was one of the coolest sports events I’ve ever had the pleasure of attending.
It was very important to me to get the whole experience, including tailgating before the game. My wife didn’t really understand this concept, instead just wanting to go for the game itself so she gracefully stepped aside and I brought one of my buddies to the game. We joined up with a couple other friends who have season tickets right beside me and a few others to make the early morning trip across the border to the US.
The NHL set up a fan festival area just outside the stadium, with all of the things you’d see at an All-Star game, only this time everything was setup outside in the elements. It was a relatively balmy winter day by Buffalo standards, with temperatures hovering around the freezing mark but the snow falling made it seem almost ‘snow globe’-like in appearance. Really cool!
As you can see, it was almost circus-like in appearance, with various strange characters all around in Sabres and Penguins gear.
They had a band playing in the festival area to entertain fans as they took everything in.
The facepainting booths were just as packed as the memorabilia stands, as fans bought up everything and anything that said “NHL Winter Classic” on it. I was really looking forward to getting one of the replica Sabres jerseys but unfortunately, they weren’t selling the EXACT replicas onsite, with the drawstrings at the neck that I wanted. The fact that costs were so outrageous for everything meant I went home empty handed. Hell, T-Shirts were $40.00 each! You have to be kidding me! Didn’t seem to matter…fans grabbed EVERYTHING they could!
There were road hockey games breaking out all over the parking lot as tailgaters were partying it up in fine fashion. The atmosphere hours before the game was electric. Just awesome stuff!
That’s Matt Troyan, Deron and Rick enjoying a cool beverage a couple hours before game time.
Some were having such a great time that they didn’t want to deal with walking all the way to the washroom. Here we find a few gals crouching and doing their business with a car door standing in for a bathroom stall. And the girl pointing at me to not take a picture of this classic moment? PRICELESS!
We’re in the stadium baby! With bag pipers leading the way, the players make the long walk to the rink for the pregame warmup. They built a little mini rink right beside the main one with young kids clad in Sabres and Penguins gear tapping their sticks on the ice in approval for their heroes. Cool touch!
The players skate around in warmups as the snow starts to fly!
The players officially make their way to the ice to start the game, as fireworks go off all around them and the capacity crowd of over 71,000 roars their approval!
The Sabres regular anthem singer Doug Allen sings the Canadian National Anthem, a tradition in Buffalo due to the huge support they get from fans on our side of the border. Check out all the snow coming down! Almost blizzard-like!
Next up is the Sabres occasional special guest, Irish tenor Ronan Tynan, who belts out his stirring rendition of God Bless America. Incredibly, some fans complained after the game that the American anthem wasn’t sung. Regardless, Tynan tore the house down, as usual.
Topping it all off was a earth-shattering flyover by four Blackhawk choppers, bringing the crowd to its feet.
The fireworks go off, signalling the beginning of the game as the crowd goes wild!
Frank, Rick and Deron approve of all the festivities during a stoppage in play in the second period.
The league pulled out all the stops in this one, bringing in Juno-award winning, Canadian alt-rocker Sam Roberts and his band for a three-song performance in the second intermission. American fans all around can be heard asking “who the hell is Sam Roberts?” HILARIOUS! Here, Sam is belting out the classic “Bridge to Nowhere”.
The snow stops for a brief moment as Buffalo’s Tim Connolly and Pittsburgh superstar Sidney Crosby line up for the third period puck drop.
The game would go into overtime tied at one and while Buffalo had countless chances to score in the extra frame on a powerplay, they ultimately couldn’t put one away.
That meant a shootout!
Ales Kotalik scored on Buffalo’s first attempt but Pittsburgh defenseman Kris Letang would follow him with a beauty of his own to knot things at one. That brought Crosby to the forefront and you just knew what was going to happen next…
He skated in deked to his forehand and was able to barely shovel the puck past Ryan Miller to give Pittsburgh the 2-1 win and send NHL commissioner Gary Bettman into washroom to pleasure himself as he can’t believe his good fortune that the league’s brightest star ended the game with the winning goal as the snow came tumbling down. A perfect end for the NHL and fans of the game – hell, even a Sabres fan like myself couldn’t get too down after this great contest.
In a moment I just knew was coming but appreciated nonetheless, the players all group at center ice and salute the 71,000+ in attendance for braving the snowy conditions and truly making the game a spectacular event.
The score was irrelevant on this day. What a great day for hockey, one that I will not soon forget.