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NHL Winter Classic

Winter Classic has rewarded risk taken by NBC

Signature NHL outdoor game has become special event for players, fans in past decade

by Jon Lane @JonLaneNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

In the days leading up to Jan. 1, 2008, a bold risk by the NHL and Buffalo Sabres was met with skepticism.

For the first time, NBC, the League's broadcast partner, was set to televise what was billed as the Winter Classic between the Sabres and Pittsburgh Penguins at Ralph Wilson Stadium.

It was the first outdoor regular-season hockey game in the United States and the first in the NHL since the Heritage Classic between the Montreal Canadiens and Edmonton Oilers at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton on Nov. 22, 2003.

The morning of the game, high risk became high reward, beginning with a snowfall that created a snow-globe effect when NBC went on the air at 1 p.m. ET. Combined with the elements, NBC knew right away it was on to something. Before a then-NHL record of 71,217, the Penguins defeated the Sabres 2-1 when center Sidney Crosby scored the deciding goal in a shootout.

"It was going to be special. It was going to be different," NBC executive producer Sam Flood said Monday. "It was fun to see it evolve. It was fun seeing that first goal being scored and us taking the first replay from an airplane. A series of firsts made it fun, made it exciting, and then the perfect end to that first game with a shootout goal by the young new star of this game in Sidney Crosby. It's amazing it's 10 years later."

The 10th anniversary of the League's signature regular-season event will be celebrated at the 2018 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic when the Sabres play the New York Rangers at Citi Field on Jan. 1 (1 p.m. ET; NBC, SN, TVA Sports). Ten years after the Sabres took a risk and helped turn an outdoor hockey game into must-see TV, the Winter Classic is responsible for seven of the top 10 most-watched NHL regular-season games, according to NBC.

The days leading up to Jan. 1, 2008, and whether a bold risk by the NHL and the Buffalo Sabres would deliver, were met with skepticism. For the first time, NBC, the League's broadcast partner, was set to televise what was billed as the Winter Classic between the Sabres and Pittsburgh Penguins at Ralph Wilson Stadium. It was the first outdoor regular-season hockey game in the United States and the first in the NHL since the Heritage Classic between the Montreal Canadiens and Edmonton Oilers at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton on Nov. 22, 2003.

The morning of the game, high risk became high reward, beginning with a snowfall that created a snow-globe effect when NBC went on the air at 1 p.m. ET. Combined with the elements, NBC knew right away it was on to something. Before a then-NHL record of 71,217, the Penguins defeated the Sabres 2-1 when center Sidney Crosby scored the deciding goal in a shootout.

Video: The First Winter Classic: Hockey Goes Outside

"It's not just another game on the schedule," NBC analyst Mike Milbury said. "It's a special event. The League makes it a special event, teams make it a special event, and therefore you get the attention of every player that's involved in this thing. They want to be part of it, they feel left out if they're not part of the Winter Classic. Everybody in the course of their career wants at least one outdoor game."

Milbury, play-by-play announcer Mike Emrick and "Inside the Glass" analyst Pierre McGuire each romanticized the past 10 years. One of Emrick's favorite memories was at the inaugural event when Penguins forward Ryan Malone followed teammate Colby Armstrong down the ramp with fireworks exploding, bagpipes playing and 71,217 people cheering.

"Malone tapped Armstrong on the shoulder and said, 'Lifetime memory here, Army. Lifetime memory here.'

"Of course, it was Armstrong who scored 21 seconds [into the game] from Crosby and got a second lifetime memory out of it," Emrick said.

Hours after Armstrong started it, Crosby ended it with his shootout winner, a moment eloquently described by Emrick, who recalled first using the words, "Here's Crosby with the game on his stick" in a game between the Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers during the 2005-06 season.

"It just was there," Emrick said. "It was an outlet pass in overtime and Crosby had a breakaway. There was time to think, I guess, so there it was."

Ten years later, the Sabres and Rangers will make new memories at the home of baseball's New York Mets. However, Buffalo is struggling after entering the season under new coach Phil Housley with a talented young core expected to progress to the next level. Though the Sabres (8-18-7) are last in the Eastern Conference with 23 points, five behind the Florida Panthers, there is no trepidation to having them participate in the game. The anticipation is that Jack Eichel, Ryan O'Reilly and their teammates will rise to the occasion.

"This game should be a launching point for Jack Eichel, for Ryan O'Reilly, for Rasmus Ristolainen, along with Sam Reinhart," McGuire said. "Those are four young players on that team that need to be the catalyst to engineer this rebuild. I think they're going to be challenged by their coach as an organization to show that on a national stage and I think this will be a perfect vehicle for these players to develop the proper branding that they need going forward."

Video: CAR@BUF: Eichel records his first career hat trick

Conversely, the Rangers (18-12-3) are 15-5-1 after a 3-7-2 start. They hold the first wild card into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the Eastern Conference and expect to get first-line center Mika Zibanejad back for their game against the Anaheim Ducks at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday (7 p.m. ET; MSG, PRIME, NHL.TV). Zibanejad has missed nine games with a concussion.

"What we're seeing in New York now is they're starting to develop their identity as a team," McGuire said. "They always want to be known as a quick, fast team. And with the center-ice play they're getting, especially when Mika Zibanejad comes back, that only enhances their ability to play a quicker game."

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