What could be the start of a New Year’s Day tradition will begin Tuesday at 1 p.m. ET (NBC, CBC, RDS, NHL Radio).
The teams hit the ice for the first time Monday afternoon, as first the Buffalo Sabres and then the Pittsburgh Penguins whirled around on the ice for about an hour each. There were gray skies, a light breeze and occasional snow flurries, but nothing seemed to slow what looked like a fun time for both teams.
“It was a great experience, a great atmosphere,” said Sabres forward Andrew Peters. “Something I can tell my kids.”
“We’ve all played outside at some point and had a great time to doing it,” said Penguins star Sidney Crosby. “It brings you back when you’re out there. I enjoy it. It’s a fun experience.”
The uniqueness of an outdoor practice made for some interesting wardrobe choices. Most of the Penguins players came out wearing hoods under their helmets. Sabres forward Thomas Vanek wore a turtleneck that he folded up over his mouth and nose for extra facial warmth.
And a few players wore eye black, including new Sabres captain Jaroslav Spacek.
“I went out there before the practice and it was a little bright, so I tried it,” he said. “Just try to do something different and make sure I’m ready for tomorrow.”
Despite temperatures in the mid-30s, most of the players said they stayed warm despite wearing extra clothing. Pens forward Ryan Malone wore a turtleneck for practice, but said he would wear his normal game-day uniform Tuesday.
“Tomorrow I’ll just throw my normal stuff on,” he said. “Once the body gets going you get heated up enough.”
And for anyone that doesn’t get heated up, there’s always a seat on a nice, hot bench.
“The benches were really warm,” said Sabres defenseman Henrik Tallinder. “It’s a good thing so when it’s windy. It’ll be nice for you.”
Some players thought it was too nice, complaining the benches were too hot; Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said he had the solution.
“If they’re going to complain, they can stand behind the bench and I’ll sit down for a while. We’ll see how that works out,” Ruff said.
Beyond the unpredictable weather is the sheer size of Ralph Wilson Stadium, the home of the NFL’s Buffalo Bills, which seats more than 73,000 people.
“It’s so huge,” said Tallinder. “You can’t believe it. It’s hard to picture it now, but all the people. It’s going to be crazy.”
“I felt tiny,” added Crosby. “Really felt small when you put it in a football stadium. You really see how big this venue is.”
But beyond all the other things that make the NHL Winter Classic such a distinctive event, is the fact that this will be an important regular-season game that greatly affects both teams.
With 42 points, the Penguins are seventh in the Eastern Conference, two points and one place in the standings ahead of the Sabres.
“Those two points are big for everybody because the Eastern Conference is so tight right now,” said Spacek. “It’s a big two points for us to go for and win tomorrow.”
Added Campbell; “Today was fun. Tomorrow will be a lot more serious. … It’s very important to us. We’ll be prepared for it. We have to come out with a win. We just had a road trip we didn’t like and these points are very important for us.”
The Sabres have lost three straight, including two on a just completed road trip to New Jersey and Pittsburgh that saw them score just two goals.
“There’s a hockey game to play,” said Peters. “That’s very important for everyone to keep in mind. With everything going on around the stadium, it’s easy to get distracted, but we have to focus on the task at hand and that’s winning a hockey game tomorrow.”
“There’s no doubt it’s going to be fun to part of it,” Pens coach Michel Therrien said. “We’re privileged to be part of it. But in the meantime we’ve got to understand this is a regular-season game and I’m sure Lindy Ruff said the same thing. He wants to have those two points and we want to have those two points.”
After losing four of six from Dec. 11-21, the Penguins have straightened things out a bit, winning three straight.
“We try to focus (on) managing well the puck, first of all, (and) playing really well when we don’t have the puck,” Therrien said. “We want to play a tight-checking game. Right now we start to get rewarded about playing that type of checking hockey. We’re a young team. It’s a learning process for a lot of those young guys. Last game, we didn’t give up a lot of scoring chances against. That’s a good sign.”
As the Penguins lingered on the ice in the final moments of practice, Crosby said he took a moment to take in the magnitude of the game.
“Definitely you want to enjoy it,” he said. “It’s a fun experience. Who knows if we’ll ever get the chance to do this again? It’s a beautiful day. It’s perfect weather. It’s not like it’s too cold to stay you. It’s something I think we’re all enjoying.”
Contact Adam Kimelman at firstname.lastname@example.org.