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NHL Winter Classic

Winter Classic making dreams come true for Rangers, Sabres

Players who watched NHL's first New Year's Day outdoor game 10 years ago getting their chance at Citi Field

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / NHL.com Columnist

NEW YORK -- The Winter Classic doesn't just romanticize the dream anymore. It is part of the dream itself.

The outdoor showcase celebrates its 10th anniversary when the Buffalo Sabres and New York Rangers play in the 2018 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic at Citi Field on Monday (1 p.m. ET; NBC, SN, TVA Sports, NHL.TV).

The event is old enough now that young players grew up watching it, wondering what it would be like to play in it.

Sabres center Jack Eichel, 21, skated outdoors as a kid in Massachusetts. His dad would pick him up from school on Fridays, and they'd play pond hockey until the lights went out.

 

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When he was 11, he watched the 2008 NHL Winter Classic at home on television. He was a big fan of Sidney Crosby then, and he saw Crosby score the shootout winner in a snow flurry as the Pittsburgh Penguins defeated the Sabres 2-1 before 71,217 fans at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, New York.

"Most kids, I think, probably dream of playing in this game," Eichel said.

Most do now, maybe.

After 2008, the Winter Classic became a regular event, drawing large crowds in iconic venues like Wrigley Field and Fenway Park, and outdoor games exploded in the NHL and at other levels.

Video: 2018 Winter Classic at Citi Field time-lapse

Rangers forward Boo Nieves, 23, attended the 2014 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic while playing at the University of Michigan. He shivered in the stands as the Toronto Maple Leafs defeated the Detroit Red Wings 3-2 in a shootout before a record crowd of 105,491 at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

"Since at that time in 2014 I was dreaming about being an NHL player, you naturally let your mind wander to what it would be like to be in a Winter Classic," Nieves wrote in his blog on NHL.com.

"You could see it in the players' eyes as they warmed up how much it meant to them. You could see it in the smiles on their faces. They wore the eye black, the balaclavas. They used all the accessories. They looked like they were genuinely enjoying the game in such a cool atmosphere.

"Now I get to be one of those players. Talk about surreal."

Talk about a difference in a decade.

Until 2008, the NHL had played one outdoor game: the 2003 Molson Canadian NHL Heritage Classic, a 4-3 victory for the Montreal Canadiens over the Edmonton Oilers before 57,167 at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton.

Kids grew up playing outdoors without any thought of playing a stadium or ballpark.

Sabres defenseman Josh Gorges, 33, skated on a backyard rink at his uncle's house in Kelowna, British Columbia. His dad would take him there, sit inside and wait, while he had the ice to himself for hours and hours and hours.

"You're just having fun," Gorges said. "I used to just love being on the ice, skating around with no real ambitions or anything."

Sabres defenseman Zach Bogosian, 27, skated on flooded fields in Massena, New York. The place was so vast, there could be 10 games of shinny at a time. Especially when out of school for Christmas break, he would play all day.

"When I was growing up, there wasn't an outdoor game," Bogosian said. "You always thought about the NHL. I always did. It's cool that kids nowadays get a chance to see this. As much media coverage as we've gotten and how the NHL has grown the last 10 years, it's been pretty cool. Hopefully it just keeps growing more and more and makes kids want to be able to play in a game like [this one]. …

"I can't imagine seeing it at 10 years old. I've always wanted to play in this since I saw it."

Sabres forward Kyle Okposo, 29, skated at Groveland Park in St. Paul, Minnesota. He would pretend he was Colorado Avalanche captain Joe Sakic, while his buddies would pretend they were Detroit Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman. They would go at it as if bitter rivals.

"I just knew that I loved playing hockey outside, and I just wanted to play in the NHL," Okposo said.

Each team held a family skate after practice at Citi Field on Sunday. Okposo crouched in the dressing room with Odin, his 20-month-old son, putting on his boots and wiping a tear from his eye.

Odin Okposo might be too young to remember this, but if he grows up dreaming of playing in the NHL like his dad, the Winter Classic will be a piece of it.

"I think it's a really cool piece," Okposo said. "Kids' dreams are for sure to make it to the NHL and to be on a big stage, and this is one of the biggest."

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