ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. --It's a cold, damp, gray day in Buffalo. Wind-driven sleet hits exposed faces and hands like sharp needles.
How cold is it in Buffalo? Well ... the polar bears are flying south. Yeti got a room. Santa's laying over for the weekend.
Buffalo thermometers are about as believable as a clock in a bar. It's the coldest 38F I've ever felt.
Yet, people are lined up three-deep in the parking lot of Ralph C. Wilson Stadium to purchase Reebok and New Era merchandise. Some buyers will be wearing their apparel to the AMP Energy NHL Winter Classic (Jan. 1, 1 p.m. NBC, CBC, RDS, NHL Network), while others just want to grab one of the many sale items bearing the distinctive Winter Classic logo.
Whether they're going to the game or preparing to watch it at home, the AMP Energy NHL Winter Classic scheduled for 1 p.m. on New Year's Day, when the Buffalo Sabres host the Pittsburgh Penguins, is generating plenty of excitement in the Buffalo area.
"It's going to be a great time," said Tom Suffoletto of Orchard Park. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime event."
The Winter Classic merchandise trailer is located at the front of the parking lot on Abbott Road. Dan Near, Manager, Retail Sales and Marketing, NHL Consumer Products-USA, kept a close eye on his customers Saturday afternoon. He said jerseys, warm hats, long-sleeved thermals and polar fleeces were selling well.
"Anything you'd expect people to wear when they're going into an outdoor stadium for a three-hour game," Near said. "We've got logo seat cushions, soft fleeces and scarves. We have a mix of Buffalo Sabres-specific and Pittsburgh Penguins-specific products, as well as Winter Classic neutral products.
"Our jerseys are vintage-inspired, in keeping with the colors the teams will wear in the game," Near said. "Pittsburgh will be wearing their old light blue sweaters and Buffalo will be wearing white, instead of their usual home navy sweaters. It should provide a great dynamic, the vibrancy of the colors in an open-air environment."
Near pointed out that fans can meet either of two important objectives, or both.
"Whether you want to wear a T-shirt or jersey of the same colors as your favorite team or you're looking for a product to keep you warm, whether you're buying for a man, woman or child, we've got it," Near said. "One of the hottest items so far has been the youth jersey."
The products available at the Winter Classic shop at the stadium are also available on shop.nhl.com, Near said.
Although Buffalo fans swarmed the ticket office and quickly snapped up all available tickets nearly a month ago, there will be some Pittsburgh fans at Ralph Wilson Stadium Tuesday.
Suffoletto said he has been "a Buffalo Sabres fan for as long as they have been in the league. I've been to many a cold (football) game in that stadium because I live right here. I park cars in my yard for Bills' games."
Getting seats for the Winter Classic was not optional as far as Suffoletto was concerned. He went all out to get seats for himself, wife Barb, daughter Danielle and her friend, Christopher, who is from Pittsburgh.
"Did you tell Chris he's buying dinner if Buffalo wins?" Suffoletto was asked.
"I'm going to make him buy dinner either way," Suffoletto snapped.
Hockey is a bond within families in many Northern communities and Buffalo is no exception. Numerous families got in line to purchase gear Saturday, many of them hockey families.
Old friends Mark Joslin and Phil Walsh, both from Hamburg N.Y., were buying for their sons, Mark Jr., 12, and Matthew Walsh, 5. Young Mark plays in the Hamburg house league and Matt plays in the Caz hockey league in South Buffalo.
"The game has really been hyped up in this area," Joslin said. "Everyone 's talking about it."
”Why not?" Walsh responded. "Seventy thousand people in a football stadium on New Year's Day. That's something I've never seen."
Amherst High School hockey coach Rich Crozier was there with his dad, Joe, the former Sabres' coach and Rich's son, Joe, 13, who plays Amherst youth hockey. Crozier was able to get 25 tickets for his high-school players and he said they're looking forward with great anticipation.
"We've got a school bus and we're leaving the parking lot at 10:30 a.m. to be here in plenty of time," said Rich Crozier, who played for Hobart College when popular broadcaster Pierre McGuire was an assistant coach. "We actually had a game scheduled against Canisius High for that day, but we changed the schedule and played them last week."
Crozier, who has coached Amherst for four years, has the typical coach's attitude, brighter days just ahead.
"We lost that game, but won our last game," he said. "We had a rocky start but we're getting better."
Kind of like the Sabres, who had defied all expectations and have become strong contenders, once again, for a Stanley Cup Playoff berth.