As a life-long Pittsburgh native who has also had the fortune of working for both the Pittsburgh Penguins and Steelers the last two-plus years, I have certainly seen my fair share of memorable sporting events.
|The Penguins and Buffalo Sabres participated in the first Winter Classic on Jan. 1, 2008 at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo, N.Y. Credit - Getty Images |
I have more spine-chilling moments on my sports-watching resume to one day share with my grandkids as I sit on a swing recalling the “good, old days” than I have room here to write about.
Among the highlights are standing 40 feet away on the sideline when Santonio Holmes caught the game-winning touchdown pass in the Steelers’ Super Bowl XLIII victory, Mario Lemieux’s final home game before his first retirement when he skated a teary-eyed (for all of us not just him) victory lap around the Mellon Arena ice and the 2006 Major League Baseball All-Star Home Run Derby with my dad.
All three of those – along with dozens of others I failed to mention – are experiences that most sports fans would do just about anything to attend in person. I feel fortunate to have been at all of the “big” games I have seen live.
But there is one game that stands out above all others. The answer might surprise you considering this game wasn’t for a championship and nor did it involve a collection of the greatest players in the sport. It was the 2008 Winter Classic between the Penguins and Buffalo Sabres at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
I remember the excitement I had back in the summer of ’07 when the league first announced there would be an outdoor game and that the Penguins would be one of the participants. As soon as my buddy Steve and I heard the game would be played just three hours north in Buffalo, we knew we had to be there.
Tickets, however, were hard to come by. Luckily, just a couple months before the game we won the raffle the Penguins had for season ticket holders. We were going to the Winter Classic!
As our bus made its way up Interstate-80, we had no clue what awaited us. Sure, we had ideas, but nobody knew for sure since this was the first time the NHL had put on a game like this in the United States.
When we finally pulled into Orchard Park, N.Y. a few hours prior to the game, we were blown away. It took about all of one second to realize this wasn’t an ordinary NHL regular-season game.
Fans from both teams were out in the parking lot tailgating, talking trash and treating the event as though it was the Super Bowl of hockey.
After partaking in many of the festivities outside the arena, Steve and I entered the stadium. At first it was weird to see an ice rink planted smack dab in the middle of a football field, but once we realized our seats were just 13 rows away, we knew we hit the jackpot.
The blistering wind blowing in off of Lake Erie and the snowflakes falling from the overcast sky above made you expect the Steelers and Bills to emerge from the tunnel, but when it was finally time for warmups it was the Penguins and Sabres who skated out.
Probably because our only previous road experiences were in Philadelphia and Washington, where the Penguins aren’t exactly welcomed guests, it was a little odd at first to hear the Penguins receive almost as loud of an ovation as the Sabres. That’s when we knew this game had that Super Bowl-type feel.
I can’t remember the exact temperature that New Year’s Day, but I can report that it was cold – and that was before the puck was even dropped. Fortunately, Colby Armstrong scored just 21 seconds into the game, allowing us the chance to jump out of our seats and warm up a bit.
At that point I remember Steve and I talking about how maybe this would be a game with plenty of offense, but the next 64:39 minutes would tick by without the Penguins beating Ryan Miller again.
And that was fine by us.
Between the snow fall, heavy hitting (I think Ryan Malone still has bruises from all the hits he laid that day) and one miraculous save after another turned in by Penguins goaltender Ty Conklin, the game had the best atmosphere of any I have ever been at.
When Sabres fans would break out into their patented “Let’s Go Buffalo” chants, we would simply respond by drowning them out by yelling “Let’s Go Pens.”
Some of the Sabres partisans surrounding us had the bright idea to taunt Sidney Crosby
anytime he had the puck. We politely reminded them that was probably not a good idea.
We had the last laugh on that one.
By about midway through the third period you could tell 60 minutes probably weren’t going to be enough to decide a winner. After a couple more 10-bell saves from Conklin, 65 minutes wasn’t long enough either.
|Sidney Crosby celebrates his game-deciding shootout goal in the 2008 Winter Classic. Credit - Getty Images |
The game shifted to a shootout.
Everyone was on their feet – not that anyone could feel them by that point anyway – as Ales Kotalik opened the breakaway competition by beating Conklin. By that point we definitely had that nervous feeling in our stomachs, but Kris Letang
allowed us to breathe easier by knotting the score, 1-1, with a sick backhander.
Finally, after Conklin robbed Maxim Afinogenov with a glove save, Crosby stood over the puck at center ice with a chance to win it for Pittsburgh. Like he always does when the pressure is the highest, Crosby delivered. He skated the puck towards Miller before slipping a shot between the netminder’s legs as Miller went for the pokecheck.
I’ll admit, I still
haven’t seen the puck enter the net, but in the most-picturesque ending I’ve ever seen at a game, I definitely cheered like I did. It was the best feeling ever walking out of that stadium wearing the winning team’s colors.
As we sat on the bus heading back to Pittsburgh, Steve and I knew we had witnessed something special. We said it then – and we continue to do so to this day – the 2008 Winter Classic was the best sporting event we ever attended.
Penguins fans, this time you are the lucky ones as the 2011 Bridgestone Winter Classic comes to Heinz Field. Not only do you have the chance to see the outdoor game which has become so popular the past four games in our city, you have the added bonus of the Washington Capitals and Alex Ovechkin comprising the visiting team.
With Crosby and Ovechkin on the same ice surface in the grandest regular-season setting we all figure to be in for a treat. Do yourself a favor and make sure you attend the 2011 Winter Classic if you have the chance.
I can guarantee that you will not be disappointed.