|NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and Buffalo Sabres goalie Ryan Miller watch hockey highlights on the scoreboard screen during the Winter Classic 2008 news conference Sept. 17, 2007.
As one speaker after another addressed the media at Buffalo's Ralph Wilson Stadium on Monday afternoon to announce the AMP Energy NHL Winter Classic -- matching the Buffalo Sabres
against the Pittsburgh Penguins
on Jan. 1, 2008 -- they very visibly squinted into the blazing sun.
Sabres goalie Ryan Miller, a cool dude in almost all situations, strode to the microphone late in the proceedings decked out in a pair of designer shades.
"As I was driving up here, I thought the sunglasses wouldn't be appropriate to wear on the stage," Miller said. "But when I got up there, I needed them."
Just goes to show that Miller is adept at dealing with Mother Nature, a skill that will come in handy for the AMP Energy Winter Classic.
Of course, Miller's looking forward to the game; only the second outdoor game in modern NHL history. But, the goalie knows an outdoor game presents problems not present when you play inside an arena.
Miller is one of the few NHLers with experience playing in a competitive outdoor game. Back in 2001, as a member of the Michigan State hockey team, Miller played in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association season-opening "Cold War" at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Mich. The game, against rival Michigan, ended in a 3-3 tie.
“Glare was definitely a factor that day," Miller recalled. "I had the eye black on. They had temporary lighting set up. There was a 20-foot wide column of glare that started inside the blue line and extended out into neutral ice on the right side. I really had to focus when players came through there with the puck. One Michigan player realized it and let a shot go that surprised me. I was lucky to get a piece of it and keep it out. It wouldn't have been a hard play in normal situations.
"So, there can be some interesting factors arising from an outdoor game. Ralph Wilson Stadium has permanent lightning but I'm guessing they'll still have to make some adjustments and so will the players. It's going to be in the afternoon, so I don't think temperature will be an issue."
The “Cold War” was an epic matchup. Both teams were loaded with talent. At least ten players would go on to NHL careers, including Michigan's Mike Cammalleri, Mike Komisarek, Jed Ortmeyer and Eric Nystrom.
Miller had a trio of future NHL defensemen in front of him in John-Michael Liles, Andrew Hutchinson and Duncan Keith, plus forwards Adam Hall and Jim Slater.
"Some other players are still making their way toward this league, although I don't follow former Michigan players," joked Miller, a member of the Spartans' first family of hockey players.
Miller’s cousin, Drew, won the Stanley Cup with the Anaheim Ducks last spring after attending MSU. NHL brothers Kelly and Kip also played there, along with several other uncles, cousins, fathers, etc.
The AMP Energy NHL Winter Classic is the second outdoor game for the NHL in recent times. The Edmonton Oilers hosted the Montreal Canadiens in the Heritage Classic at Commonwealth Stadium. That game, contested on Nov. 22, 2003, was played in sub-freezing temperatures (minus-28 degree wind chill) and still attracted a record crowd of more than 55,000 people.
Miller was asked what advice he can give his Sabres' teammates about playing outdoors.
"I'll warn them about the hype that's going to focus on playing this outdoor game," Miller said. "Everyone, including the veterans, acted like a rookie, going a million miles an hour. You just have to play your game and take in the experience. This is a great chance to showcase hockey."
Skaters will skate one minute out of every three in the Winter Classic, but the goalie is out there for the full 60 minutes. Miller says the goaltenders will have a different challenge.
“The temperature wasn't too bad,” he said, speaking of his experience in the Cold War. “It was early October and pretty mild. It was a little breezy and, standing out there in the elements, the wind was a little tough. I know I dehydrated more quickly and I got some windburn. I know it was nowhere near as bad as Edmonton.
"But Buffalo is known for weird weather. It could be in the 60s in January or it could go completely the other way. We'll just have to wait for the forecast and adjust accordingly. Maybe we'll get to use the football sideline heaters to warm up."
Actually, the average temperature in Buffalo around the New Year is a near perfect (for ice conditions) 25 degrees.
The weather cooperated perfectly for the Cold War. Although it was only the first week in October, temperatures hovered around 30 degrees. A crowd of 74,554, the largest ever for an outdoor hockey game, watched the Michigan rivals go at one another.
At the time, Miller was the reigning Hobey Baker Award winner. As a sophomore, he had become only the second goalie to capture college hockey's most valuable player award. He had a 1.32 goals-against-average with 30 wins and an NCAA-record .950 save percentage as a sophomore.
But none of that helped Miller that day. Cammalleri had two goals and an assist that helped Michigan enter the final minute with a 3-2 lead. Miller was lifted for an extra skater and Slater scored to tie it with 47 seconds remaining in the game.
Slater had set up Hall for the game's opening score. Cammalleri drew a faceoff back to Jason Ryznar who beat Miller 5-hole to tie at 1-1 in the first period. Cammalleri then had a highlight-reel goal in the second period that Keith matched in the third period with a deflected power-play score. Cammalleri converted a pass for the go-ahead goal halfway through the period.
Still, Miller gives Cammalleri no credit, even though, Cammalleri turns a defenseman inside out, pulls Miller out of position and launches a sharp-angled shot top-shelf for the score. Wasn't that good, Miller insists.
"He whiffed on that and picked it up again," Miller said with a laugh. "He made a nice play to stick with but he first shot over the top of the puck, completely. I'm not going to concede it."
Miller was on the bench when Brad Fast intercepted Ortmeyer's clearing pass and fed Hall in the slot. The puck emerged from a tangle to Slater, who beat Josh Blackburn for the tying tally.
The opening tie didn't hurt either team. Michigan St. made it to the West Regional, falling to Colorado College, who lost to Frozen Four champion Minnesota in the quarterfinal. Michigan lost to Minnesota in the semifinal.
Miller camouflages his intensity behind his humor but it's always right below the surface.
Such intensity has helped him to the second-best winning percentage (.683) in the NHL the past two seasons. His team has been in the Eastern Conference Final in both of the past two seasons.
Despite off-season personnel changes, Miller thinks the Sabres have the talent to return. Many prognosticators think the Penguins also have an excellent chance to be Stanley Cup contenders. The Penguins finished well last season and added several good players this season.
Miller is loathe to compliment opponents. Instead, he threw down a challenge.
"They have to come through the Eastern Conference and they have to come through us," Miller said. "They've made a great start and they have good talent and it's exciting to compete against them.
“There's a lot of great teams in the East who can make that run. To make that run, as we found out when people touted us, it's tough to get out of the division to have that chance."