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On Frozen Pond: Penguins and Sabres set to stage NHL's first U.S. outdoor game @NHLdotcom

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. (AP) - Gary Roberts pulled his 41-year-old legs out of his skates in the warmth of the visitors dressing room at Madison Square Garden.

The mere thought of playing a real NHL game outside in the elements of Western New York on New Year's Day suddenly shook him from his comfort zone. The "Winter Classic" is just days away, and the longtime veteran's list of preparations consists of one.

"Yeah, how I'm going to get out of it," he said, causing an eruption of laughter from his Pittsburgh Penguins teammates.

Come Tuesday, the Penguins will hit the ice at Ralph Wilson Stadium to take on the Buffalo Sabres in the NHL's first outdoor game in the United States and second overall.

On a frozen field made more for Jim Kelly's passes than Sidney Crosby's, a hockey rink has been under construction since last Sunday, right after the Buffalo Bills finished their home NFL season.

The goal posts came down, the crown in the field was leveled, and the transformation was well under way for the event that came together with only about six months of planning. The other time the NHL played a real game outside was on Nov. 22, 2003, when the Montreal Canadiens went to Edmonton to take on the Oilers in the subfreezing temperatures of Alberta.

That event, dubbed the "Heritage Classic," came off after three years of prep work. It was a smash hit, from the ski cap on the head of Canadiens goalie Jose Theodore, to the visible breath of players as they raced up and down the ice.

Roberts has done pretty much everything in an NHL career that has lasted more than 20 years. He has lifted the Stanley Cup, scored more than 50 goals in a season, and been an All-Star several times. Now he will experience something completely different.

The early forecast calls for a 33 degree day with a chance for snow showers.

"It doesn't really interest me. It's outdoors. It's too cold for me," he said. "I played a charity game outdoors in Hamilton in a football stadium during the lockout. We got about 30 mile-an-hour winds, we had rain.

"Will it be fun? Sure, it'll be fun, but you just hope it goes over as well as they expect it to go over. That's all."

Judging by the quick sale of tickets, it already looks like a success. The expected crowd will be approximately 73,000 for the opening faceoff shortly after 1 p.m. The crowd should be quite into it following New Year's Eve celebrations and a football-style tailgate party in the parking lot.

When 42,000 tickets went on sale back in September, they were gone within 30 minutes.

"There will be 70,000 people who are going to enjoy watching a hockey game outside and most of them are going to be able to see the puck, which is great," said John Shannon, the NHL's senior vice president for broadcasting. "If you can combine actually watching a game with creating an event, I think we've got the best of both worlds."

Thousands more will be crammed into the comforts of the Sabres' home arena to watch the game on the big screen.

The drive from Pittsburgh to Buffalo is in the three- or four-hour range, and Crosby has many fans not too far away across the Canadian border. So allegiances could be mixed. The majority of the tickets, however, were sold in Western New York.

Now, if the weather will just cooperate, this event could become an annual New Year's tradition. You know, the "Frozen Bowl."

"If we're anywhere from 20-to-40 temperature-wise, we're fine," said Don Renzulli, the NHL's senior vice president of events and entertainment.

However, any precipitation above a slight drizzle or a batch of flurries would pose problems. While snow looks great on TV during a football game, it is hardly conducive for hockey.

"I thought my outdoor days were done, for sure," said Crosby, a Nova Scotia native. "I didn't think I'd be playing outside in an NHL game."

NBC, a main force in getting this game on the schedule, has provided the NHL a wide window to squeeze the game in. If delays are necessary to clean the ice or wait out the weather, the plug won't be pulled quickly.

"We have all the monitors to see what's coming," Renzulli said. "We will have a weather station on the field. We are bringing in a weatherman. I think we're pretty well-covered, at least in preparing for what could happen. Then we'll see what happens.

"When the players get there, the adrenaline is going to be flowing and they're going to want to play this game as much as anyone else. We're going to wait it out. We're going to do everything we can to play this game."

From a players standpoint, that starts and really ends with being warm.

"Just layers. Who's prepared for this?" said Crosby, the Penguins captain. "We'll take our moms' advice. We'll probably change clothes between periods if we can, depending on how cold it is. Maybe we'll get a nice day and maybe it won't be that bad."

There are all kinds of scenarios the NHL is mulling should weather become so much of a factor that the game is unplayable. It's not just an issue for game day, but in the whole week of preparations.

High winds made life a little difficult, but all signs pointed to being ready for practice on the rink Monday and then the game Tuesday.

Nothing quite like Sabres defenseman Toni Lydman used to go through as a kid back home in Finland.

"We had practices where you actually couldn't really see the puck because it was snowing so hard," he said. "They would blow it out, and it took about 15 minutes, and then you followed the puck along the ice. You would see the snow flying around, so you had to follow the trail."

That won't be a problem this time. NBC is employing as many cameras as it would use for the Stanley Cup finals, including an extra one in a helicopter.

Can't do that for an inside game.

U.S. television viewers don't really have anything to compare this to. The Heritage Classic in Edmonton wasn't broadcast south of the border, except as part of the NHL's Center Ice package.

If this one works out, expect another one next year. New Year's Day has always been one for college football. Hockey is looking to make a dent.

There is already a buzz among several teams interested in hosting the next one. College stadiums could be used, maybe even a matchup of the Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers on Joe Paterno's turf out at Penn State.

For now, Crosby is focused on Tuesday.

"It'll be fun," the 20-year-old forward said. "It's a regular-season game so you still have to be ready, but it's a little different circumstances. Everyone, I think, is going to enjoy it. It's a unique experience and I think we all feel fortunate to be playing in it.

"There could've been 28 other teams given the opportunity. We are able to say we did it, so hopefully everything will work out."

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