"For how big it turned out and how well it turned out and for them to keep doing it -- it's been doing well -- we never really expected that. We thought it would be a one-time thing, but it seems to be doing well and that's really cool." -- Jordan Staal
The Pittsburgh Penguins' young center didn't have to say a word when it was brought to his attention that his team forever will be known as the first in history to win an NHL Winter Classic game.
The grin did the talking. It said a lot about how Staal and the Penguins still feel about their 2-1 shootout victory against the Sabres on New Year's Day 2008 in snowy Buffalo.
"For how big it turned out and how well it turned out and for them to keep doing it -- it's been doing well -- we never really expected that," Staal told NHL.com. "We thought it would be a one-time thing, but it seems to be doing well and that's really cool."
The Penguins all have fond memories of their Winter Classic experience.
Colby Armstrong scored 21 seconds into the game to give Pittsburgh a 1-0 lead before Brian Campbell scored 1:25 into the second to tie it up. Amid blizzard-like conditions, the game eventually went into a shootout. Sidney Crosby won it in the third round when he sloshed through the snow, avoided a poke check from Ryan Miller and found an opening in the goalie's pads for the winner.
"When we were playing in it, it was kind of weird," Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik told NHL.com. "Because of the conditions and because it was so different you really had to remind yourself that it was a regular-season game and it was for two points. That was one of the bigger things that went quietly by."
It was especially hard to remember it was a real game at the beginning because of the incredible pomp and circumstance that went along with the inaugural Winter Classic, which occurred a little more than four years after the NHL's first foray outside with the Heritage Classic in Edmonton.
After walking out of the dressing rooms and down the tunnel leading to the field, the players were greeted by more than 70,000 roaring fans and a glittering pyrotechnics show as they made their way to the ice.
Famed Irish tenor Ronan Tynan sang "God Bless America" and four Black Hawk helicopters soared over Ralph Wilson Stadium. The stadium was electric as the snow fell.
"When we first walked out there with all of the fans it was pretty special," Staal said. "It was really, really cool. You can't describe it any other way. You just don't normally get to play in front of that many fans and play outside with the snow falling and you can't even see. It's definitely something special and now we have the chance to see it every year. Hopefully it will stay."
The odds seem fairly good for that. The League currently is preparing in Boston for its third Winter Classic and everyone, from fans, media and League employees to front-office executives and players already want to know where the next one will be.
"I thought it was a cool idea and I knew it would be big in Buffalo, but it has really taken off," Orpik said. "It seemed like they did a really good job in Chicago (last season). For just an average sports fan, it's a lot of fun just to watch."
And for the Penguins, it's great to know they made history.
They're still smiling about it today.
"Exactly," Penguins forward Tyler Kennedy told NHL.com, a big smile on his face, too. "We weren't really sure what we were walking into, but it was a great experience all around. There were so many fans and it was just so hyped up. It was awesome."
Contact Dan Rosen at email@example.com