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Winter Classic takes announcers back to the beginning

by John McGourty

Bob Costas will host NBC's broadcast coverage of the AMP Energy NHL Winter Classic on New Year's Day from Buffalo's Ralph Wilson Stadium.
Bob Costas will host NBC's broadcast coverage of the AMP Energy NHL Winter Classic game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the host Buffalo Sabres at 1 p.m. ET on New Year's Day from Buffalo's Ralph Wilson Stadium. The veteran sportscaster is looking forward to getting back to his "roots."

Costas, no stranger to upstate New York winters after attending Syracuse University, broadcast minor-league hockey, the Syracuse Blazers, during the 1970s and later substituted on St. Louis Blues broadcasts when the late Dan Kelly was ill.

"I got $30 a game and $5 meal money on the road," Costas said of his Blazer days, adding that he and play-by-play announcer Mike Emrick and analysts Ed Olczyk and Mike Milbury will be swapping stories about that era during the broadcast. Milbury attended Colgate University in Hamilton, also in upstate New York.

Costas recalled that Bill "Harpo" Goldthorp played for the Blazers during Costas’s time there. Goldthorp was the inspiration for the "Ogie Ogelthorpe" character in the movie Slap Shot.

Costas said that while he hasn't covered hockey recently, his job on the broadcast will be similar to the role he performs at the Kentucky Derby and golf tournaments.

"Other guys have more expertise in these sports than I do, not that I don't enjoy them," Costas said. "It's my job to provide overview and set the scene. That's how I'll approach it here. I'm not going to analyze the game. I'll present the concept. It really is an event."

n event that has clearly captured the imagination of Costas.

"It's unique," Costas said. "I'm looking forward to it. I'm excited."

The other three broadcasters and NBC Sports producer Sam Flood were in agreement that they're really excited about the game, which could set a North American record for attendance at a hockey game.

But they also agreed that there are so many variables to playing an outdoor game in the afternoon in Buffalo that it makes it difficult to predict what kind of conditions will prevail.

Flood said that in a recent visit to Buffalo, the wind was blowing fiercely. Buffalo annually averages almost 94 inches of snow. The average January temperature is 17 degrees Farenheit.

Those potential conditions, though, didn't stop area hockey fans from snapping up all available tickets in three hours. A crowd in excess of 73,000 is expected.

The North American record for hockey attendance is 74,554, set Oct. 6, 2001, when Michigan State hosted the University of Michigan at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Mich., in a game dubbed "The Cold War." Sabres goalie Ryan Miller and Penguins forward Adam Hall played in that game for Michigan State.

Flood joked that if wind conditions similar to the ones he experienced on his most recent visit occur again Jan. 1, "The speed of the guys skating downwind might break a record, but upwind they might feel like Mike Milbury on a good night."

Milbury said he "grew up in a little town south of Boston dotted with little ponds" and spent a good part of his childhood playing outdoor hockey. He said as kids they would "go for as long as you could possibly go" and that there was something wonderful about "playing free-flowing, free-form, when it's that cold. You feel like you are skating 40 mph."

Olczyk, who coached some of the Penguins during his tenure as head coach from 2003-05, grew up in Chicago and remembered playing pond hockey all day and into the night.

"It does take you back to when you were a young boy, growing up dreaming of playing in the NHL," Olczyk said. "We were out in the elements and skating all day, whether the sun was out or it was pitch black."

He recalled people would turn their automobiles toward the ice surface and use their headlights to illuminate the rink. "I've dreamt about going back out there again."

"We were out in the elements and skating all day, whether the sun was out or it was pitch black." - Ed Olczyk

Olczyk played 16 seasons in the NHL for his hometown Blackhawks, the Toronto Maple Leafs, Winnipeg Jets, New York Rangers, Los Angeles Kings and Penguins. He said team travel schedules put him in Buffalo on three prior New Year's Days. He said he'd show Flood the city's hot nightspots, as long as Flood picked up the tab.

"It's great to be back," Olczyk said, adding the Buffalo area is extremely enthusiastic for hockey. "They could have sold another 75,000 tickets for this. I'm really thrilled to be part of it."

Emrick said sun glare could prove a factor on a clear day. Emrick said he's never called a daytime outdoor game.

"This will be intriguing for a number of reasons, in my mind," Emrick said. "The (outdoor) games we have to compare to have largely been played at night. We have the notion of players wearing eye black."

Emrick recalled that goalie Jose Theodore wore a tuque over his goalie mask in the November 2003 Heritage Classic between the Montreal Canadiens and Edmonton Oilers at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton, a game that drew 57,167 fans in windy, -20F weather.

"Now, we have the sun," Emrick warned. "We have the potential for pucks being lofted."

The idea of a player or goalie losing a puck in the sun, like a baseball outfielder might, is not so far-fetched. The Canadian goalie in the 1956 Winter Olympics lost a puck in the lights and was scored upon.

"The sun could really become a factor," Olczyk agreed, adding that participants and broadcasters alike will "be flying by the seat of our pants. The adrenaline for these players is going to be so high because of the atmosphere."

Players in both teams will be outfitted in retro team jerseys bearing "football-sized numbers," for better viewing.

Something you might want to watch for: At practice Tuesday morning at Madison Square Garden, Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby was practicing a play where he put his right toe on the puck, skated forward on his left skate and whipped the puck, with his right toe, behind his left leg straight onto teammates' sticks, 10-15 feet away. Crosby said he has never tried the play in a game.


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