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Legendary Ralph Wilson Stadium a perfect Winter Classic host

by Randy Schultz

Rendering of Ralph Wilson Stadium where the Sabres will play the Penguins on January 1, 2008.
Ralph Wilson Stadium has seen its share of Hall of Famers play on its turf during the past 35 seasons of National Football League play. Included in that group are the likes of Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Joe DeLamielleure, James Lofton and O.J. Simpson.

On Jan. 1, 2008, potential Hockey Hall of Famers Sidney Crosby and Ryan Miller will unbelievably join that list of great names.
When construction of Rich Stadium (as it was known as for its first 25 years) began in Orchard Park, N.Y., in the spring of 1972, nobody ever envisioned the football-only stadium to one day host a hockey game.

Thirty-five years later, the NHL’s first outdoor regular-season game in the United States will take place at that football stadium on New Year’s Day, 2008. The NHL Winter Classic will feature the Buffalo Sabres playing host to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The NHL Winter Classic (1 p.m. ET, NBC, CBC, RDS, NHL Radio, XM) will mark another great moment in the history of Ralph Wilson Stadium. The majority of great moments at “The Ralph,” as it is called by the locals, have revolved around the Buffalo Bills.

Don't miss the AMP Energy NHL Winter Classic pregame show on Jan. 1 at 11 a.m. ET, LIVE from Buffalo, only on NHL.TV! Join hosts Sam Rosen and Bill Clement as they provide up-to-the-minute information on the game, players, ice surface and weather conditions, review the build of the outdoor rink and interview the players who will make U.S. hockey history. 

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One of the first great moments occurred Oct. 29, 1973. The Bills and Kansas City Chiefs were featured on “Monday Night Football.”
It was the seventh game of the season for the Bills, the mid-way point of the then 14-game NFL campaign. That night a nation-wide audience saw Simpson hit the 1,000-yard mark.

It was the earliest a running back had ever hit the 1,000-yard mark. Simpson would go on to run for 2,003 yards that season, becoming the first running back to hit the 2,000-yard mark in NFL history.
On Sept. 7, 1980, the Bills’ Roosevelt Leaks caught a 4-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Joe Ferguson to give Buffalo the lead for good in a 17-7 victory against the Miami Dolphins. That win ended the Bills’ record losing streak against the Dolphins at 20 games.
Fred Smerlas blocked a potential winning field goal by the New York Jets’ Pat Leahy with just 19 seconds left in regulation time in a game on Nov. 20, 1988. The game would go into overtime before the Bills kicker, Scott Norwood, kicked a 10-yard field goal to win the game for Buffalo, 9-6, and clinch its second American Football Conference East Division title.
Potential Hockey Hall of Famers Sidney Crosby and Ryan Miller will join the list of names that have played on Ralph Wilson Stadium.
Norwood is just one of the many kickers the Bills have employed through the years. With Buffalo being one of the windiest cities in the United States, every Buffalo kicker has faced the wild winds of Ralph Wilson Stadium.

Featuring swirling winds that change direction rapidly, the stadium is a supreme challenge for kickers.

“The bowl of the stadium was built 50 feet under ground,” said Steve Christie, a former kicker that holds the Bills all-time point scorer. “The upper deck is above ground.

“The open end of the stadium is parallel to the direction of the winds that blow in. When the winds do blow in, it seems as though they drop down into the bowl and create some crazy wind patterns.
“Believe me, they have been problems for every kicker and quarterback who has ever had to kick or pass into those blowing winds.”

Yet, those winds could not stop the Bills from becoming one of the most successful teams of the 1990s. During that time, the team won four-consecutive AFC titles, resulting in four-straight trips to the Super Bowl. Unfortunately, those trips resulted in four Supewr Bowl losses.

Three of those AFC Championship games were played in Orchard Park.

On Jan. 20, 1991, the Bills crushed the Los Angeles Raiders, 51-3. A year later, the Bills’ Jeff Wright would tip a John Elway pass into the arms of Carlton Bailey, who returned the interception 11 yards for Buffalo’s only touchdown in the 10-7 AFC Championship win against the Denver Broncos. On Jan. 23, 1994, the Bills would again host an AFC title game, overwhelming the Chiefs, 30-13.
But, the game that is considered by many to be the greatest ever played at “The Ralph” took place Jan. 3, 1993. It was the AFC Wildcard playoff contest between the Bills and Houston Oilers.

Today, the game is simply called “The Greatest Comeback Ever.” In one of the most unbelievable games in NFL history, the Bills rallied from a 35-3 deficit early in the third quarter to beat the Oilers, 41-38, in overtime.

What makes the game truly amazing for the Bills is that they were missing starters Kelly, at quarterback, and linebacker Cornelius Bennett. Thomas would miss the second half of the game with a hip pointer.
The key to the Bills comeback was backup quarterback, Frank Reich.
“Your thought is to take it one play at a time, which is what we ended up doing,” recalled Reich, years later. “It is great to be a part of NFL history.
Present-day Bills kicker, Rian Lindell, put things in perspective.
“Playing a hockey game in a football stadium is going to be pretty cool,” Lindell said. “It’s just going to add to the history that this stadium already has.
“And, I think any of the (NHL) players who have followed NFL football will understand the special feeling they will have as they head down that tunnel and onto the field to begin the game.
“There is no other feeling like it in Bills football.”

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