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NHL attendance record will fall when Penguins and Sabres play outdoors

NHL.com @NHL

If the weather co-operates and the NHL's scheduled New Year's Day outdoors game in the suburbs of Buffalo, N.Y., goes off as planned, there'll be 70,000-plus hockey fans who will never forget it.

Just ask the 57,000 hearty souls who sat through the league's initial outdoor extravaganza in Edmonton's Commonwealth Stadium with the thermometer dipping to nearly -20C. They'll always be able to say they attended The Heritage Classic.

Years from now, those who witness the Pittsburgh Penguins-Buffalo Sabres game on Jan. 1 at Ralph Wilson Stadium will have a similar claim to fame. The popularity of the event was established instantly when tens of thousands of tickets were gobbled up the moment they went on sale.

Fans streaming across the border from southern Ontario will want to get to suburban Orchard Park early if they want to avoid lineups at the Peace Bridge.

The home of the NFL's Buffalo Bills seats 73,967 and, if seating is added on the field, there is a chance an attendance record for a hockey game might be set.

The Cold War game at East Lansing, Mich., between the Michigan State Spartans and the visiting Michigan Wolverines on Oct. 6, 2001, set the record with about 74,000. Sabres goalie Ryan Miller was in net for the Spartans. The temperature was only slightly below freezing during the game.

"It was a little breezy so standing on the ice in the elements was tough," Miller recalls. "I got dehydrated quicker and got a little bit of wind burn, but it wasn't as bad as it was in Edmonton."

He and his teammates will be studying weather forecasts come December.

"Buffalo weather can be weird in January," says Miller. "We'll have to wait for the forecast and adjust accordingly on how we dress.

"It's a chance to be part of something great. There's an obligation as a hockey player to pass along the game. We have a unique challenge in the United States, where it's very regional and a niche sport in some regards, and this is chance to do something for the sport. This is a great chance for hockey to pick up some new fans."

It was the runaway success of The Cold War that induced others to consider playing copycat.

The Frozen Tundra Classic between Ohio State and Wisconsin at Green Bay's Lambau Field on Feb. 11, 2006, drew more than 40,000 spectators.

Last December in Moscow, Russian hockey celebrated its history by erecting a rink in Red Square for an oldtimers game that drew 2,000 to the patch of historic downtown ground.

The NHL actually allowed teams to stage an outdoor game long before the fad started. In 1991, the New York Rangers and the Los Angeles Kings slapped pucks on a temporary rink in Las Vegas. There were 13,000 curious gawkers. Since it was only a pre-season game, it was never given the status of a "first" outdoor big-league game.

Buffalo gets a lot of snow and, while the white stuff is what everyone seems to be worried about regarding next Jan. 1, the biggest weather-related concern might be wind. Talk to any NFL kicker about it. Wind can play havoc with normal routine.

The Bills' stadium features a main bowl that is about 15 metres below ground level. There is an open end that is parallel to the direction of the prevailing winds, which at times swirl and rapidly change direction. Skating into the wind could be Sidney Crosby's biggest obstacle.

If it is bitterly cold and Don Cherry requires a parka, viewers might not see his latest loud sports jacket, which might not be a bad thing.

Regardless, the NHL Winter Classic is something to look forward to.

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