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NHL evens the playing field

by Dan Rosen
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Playing a regular-season game outdoors is quite unique, which is why a few different rules apply.

The League announced Saturday that in order to nullify any advantages one team may have over the other in the AMP Energy NHL Winter Classic at Ralph Wilson Stadium (Jan. 1, 1 p.m. ET, NBC, CBC, RDS, NHL Radio) the teams will switch goals halfway through the third period.

Doing so ensures both the Buffalo Sabres, who are considered the home team, and the Pittsburgh Penguins will each spend an equal amount of time battling any weather elements, such as sun in the eyes, or wind in the face.

If the game proceeds to overtime, the teams will switch ends at the 2:30 mark. The only time the goalies would not switch would be in a shootout, where they have their choice of net to defend. It is possible that teams will be shooting at the same net.

“Because we’re outside and we don’t have a controlled atmosphere we want to make sure both teams have the same opportunity,” said NHL Senior Vice President of Events and Entertainment Don Renzulli, who added that NHL Hockey Operations and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman worked with both teams to make it as fair as possible.

In order for the Sabres and Penguins to get that chance, construction of the rink and everything surrounding the ice surface needs to be finished.

The process continued on schedule Saturday.

The ice surface now looks NHL ready with lines, circles, goal creases, trapezoids, faceoff dots and logos all set into the ice. By Sunday night, after the crew adds another three-quarters of an inch of ice on top of the surface to seal everything in, the Zambonis will make their first appearance to do some hot floods.

“The HSBC Arena crew has taken over field of play,” said Dan Craig, the NHL facilities operations manager. “It’s their staff putting this together, and they’re one of the best in the business. That’s why they’re here as part of a major event that we have.”

Workers continued to construct the field level areas outside the boards. The four videoboards on the west end of the field were put in place and are scheduled to be tested by Sunday morning. Camera platforms were also erected, and CBC’s broadcast set was going up Saturday evening. NBC is coming in Sunday.

Snow was also hauled in from outside the stadium to be spread over the uncovered planks of plywood and tarp. Renzulli said a snow machine is also on site and, if necessary, the League will make snow to spread a fresh white sheet overtop the existing snow to make it clean.

“This thing is going to be second to none. It’s going to be spectacular,” Craig said. “People are telling me there is quite a buzz, but I haven’t been outside the stadium. I can still feel it in the stadium.”

The Penguins and Sabres will arrive for scheduled practices on Monday afternoon so they can get accustomed to similar conditions they’ll face on New Year’s Day. Craig said from his experience the player’s eyes will open wide.

Think Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final, only outside and in front more than three times as many people.

“I would love to be in their shoes right now. I really would,” Craig said. “When they get out there and lace ’em up, it’s going to be in a zone that these guys will very seldom be in. It sends chills up your spine to be in this time of atmosphere.”

There’s still work to do, but the buzz is palpable.

Less than 72 hours to go.

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