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We're having a party!

by Dan Rosen

Upon driving down Abbot Road, which leads to Ralph Wilson Stadium, fans will be able to see the tailgating party the NHL has set up in Spectator Plaza in Parking Lot C.
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Coming to Ralph Wilson Stadium on Jan. 1? Lucky enough to have a ticket to the AMP Energy NHL Winter Classic? Well, don’t expend all your energy on New Year’s Eve because a party awaits you as soon as you park the car.

The NHL’s special events crew, headed up by Don Renzulli, the League’s Senior Vice President for Events and Entertainment, doggedly has been preparing for the big day for months. They’ve been on site since Sunday, putting everything into place so the 70,000-plus fans coming to the stadium can enjoy the entire Winter Classic experience.

Clearly, this is more than just a regular-season hockey game, which is why on Friday sat down with Renzulli to go over the entire landscape of events his staff has planned for New Year’s Day.

Renzulli has a history of planning and operating events of this magnitude. He came to the NHL this year after 12 years with the National Football League, where he left as the Senior Director of Events Operation. Renzulli was part of the events team that planned each of the past 10 Super Bowls.

“In a lot of ways (the NHL Winter Classic) is similar (to a Super Bowl) because of the pre-planning and meeting our timelines,” Renzulli told “Obviously the event, with the number of people coming, is close to being the same. We’re just not there yet to really blow this thing out. With the Bills having a game this past weekend we just don’t have the timeframe. We don’t have a month to build. So the focus has been, ‘Let’s make sure we get the ice in and can play the game.’ ”

But Renzulli’s staff still has been at it every day, prepping the areas inside and outside of Ralph Wilson Stadium to ensure each fan attending the NHL Winter Classic will have a terrific game-day experience.

Here is an insider’s view of what fans can expect once they park their cars:

Outside Ralph Wilson Stadium

Upon driving down Abbot Road, which leads to Ralph Wilson Stadium, fans will be able to see the tailgating party the NHL has set up in Spectator Plaza in Parking Lot C.

“What I’m thinking is, everybody is going out for New Year’s Eve and may not be thinking tailgate,” Renzulli said, “so we’re going to try to create a tailgate party for the fans arriving.”

A large video board will have programming throughout the party, including various NHL highlights. The game, though, will not stream live.

Various sponsors will be doing giveaways.

Vendors will be out in full force with food and beverages.

Large inflatables dressed in oversized replica jerseys that the Sabres and Penguins will be wearing for the game also will be on display for pictures.

Nik and the Nice Guys, the self-proclaimed No. 1 rock and roll party band in the United States, will perform live. The band has a direct tie-in to hockey and the NHL as they were founded by a group of former players from St. Lawrence University, including Calgary Flames coach Mike Keenan.

“The hockey fan that typically just goes to the arena and walks in and enjoys what’s inside is going to come early because this is more of a big-time event,” Renzulli said.

NHL Winter Classic merchandise went on sale around Ralph Wilson Stadium Friday. On game day, it will be sold in the Bills Store, which is located off One Bills Drive, and in 36 other locations spread throughout the stadium.

“Everywhere you normally see Bills merchandise we’ll have NHL Winter Classic merchandise, and we’ve added locations, as well,” Renzulli said.

Inside Ralph Wilson Stadium

Upon entering the stadium for the first time, your eyes immediately should gravitate to the rink. Anybody who ever has been to a Bills game will marvel at how different the field will look.

While the game clearly is the main attraction, Renzulli and his staff have prepared numerous pre-game and between-period activities to keep everyone entertained for the entire experience.

“When we bring them inside we think the novelty will be, obviously, the size of the rink on the football field, and everything we have going on,” Renzulli said.

Starting with a planned flyover by four Black Hawk helicopters. “That should be pretty special,” Renzulli said.

Renowned Irish tenor Ronan Tynan will perform God Bless America and Doug Allen, the longtime anthem singer at Sabres home games, will perform O Canada.

During the anthems, military members will unfurl large Canadian and U.S. flags. Like a regular game, the players will be on the ice for both anthems.

There also is planned entertainment on the auxiliary rink, which will have some pre-game entertainment and more during the first intermission. The players will enter the playing area via the tunnel adjacent to the auxiliary rink.

The Sam Roberts Band, one of Canada’s top rock acts, will perform songs from its latest album, Chemical City, during the second intermission on a stage erected in the northwest corner of the field.

Two video boards will flank the stage and another two will be placed in the southwest corner. The video boards will face the stands so the fans in those areas do not have to turn around 180 degrees to see the big board above the Bills’ retired numbers.

Fans also will get a unique vantage of CBC’s broadcast set in the northeast corner of the field, and NBC’s set in the southeast corner.

Nobody will be obstructed, either, because the seven rows behind both network broadcast positions will covered. Seats behind each video board on the other side will be covered, too.

Renzulli said roughly 2,200 seats will be covered in the lower bowl.

Snow also is going to be laid down to hide the tarp that is spread over the remaining uncovered areas of the football field. Renzulli said the League even may have to make snow to cover the entire tarp because a heavy dose is not in the forecast.

“The idea is to cover all the tarp and plywood on the field,” Renzulli said, “so we’ll haul some snow in from the outside that we have piled up and we’ll probably coat it with some fresh stuff.”

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