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NHL Working Hard To Prepare Outdoor Rink

by Joe Sager / Pittsburgh Penguins

Winter Classic Homepage

 12-27 Winter Classic Preview 

Think you’re busy during the holiday season?

Well, it probably isn’t as hectic as what Don Renzulli and the rest of the people in charge of arranging the Amp Energy NHL Winter Classic between the Penguins and Sabres outdoors at Buffalo’s Ralph Wilson Stadium on New Year’s Day are experiencing.

They’ve been going non-stop since Dec. 23 – and months before it, actually, to stage the NHL’s first regular-season game played outdoors in the United States.

“We probably got involved with this in June. It was talked long before that,” said Renzulli, the NHL’s Senior Vice President of Events and Entertainment. “We did some site studies and we actually went up and built the mock rink in the stadium – instead of looking at pieces of paper with lines drawn on them – we wanted to see really what the fans would see and we did that in August. We came back in early September and had our press conference to launch it. Going forward, as this thing can grow, it’s going to take a lot more time and pre-planning as, hopefully, it is successful and we can move it around to other venues in the country.”

The game will be the NHL’s second regular-season contest to be held outdoors. The Heritage Classic, played on Nov. 22, 2003, in Edmonton, Alberta.

“That was well before my time, but I think what we came out of it with the idea that it was something special,” Renzulli said. “It turns an 18,000-seat arena into a 70,000-seat arena. It really gives the local fans a chance to go out and experience something different.

“It takes everybody back to when they learned this game and the roots of hockey. It wasn’t in a rink; it was out on a pond some place. So, I think it just gets everybody back to the way it was meant to be.”

The game will be telecast nationally at 1 p.m. on NBC in the United States and CBC in Canada.

“It’s awesome for the league. I think we’re going to expose this game to a number of other people who normally don’t watch. Having a New Year’s Day time slot on NBC and CBC is awesome. It gives us the ability to go head-to-head with major bowl games, something we haven’t had before. I think we’ll be exposed to a lot of new fans going forward,” Renzulli said. “And, we give the opportunity to 70,000 fans to come at one time to watch. As loud as HSBC Arena can get when the Sabres score, it’s going to be three times as loud this time around. I think the buzz that is going on right now in Buffalo is tremendous. The fan support up there is tremendous. Tickets sold out in about 40 minutes. The demand is there and the press the game has been getting has been awesome.”

Don Renzulli

While the focus will be on the Penguins and Sabres, there will be a variety of other entertainment.

“We’ll have a flyover, pending on weather conditions. We’ll have a secondary ice rink on the field where you’ll see little kids playing,” Renzulli said. “We’ll try to mix up between pregame and intermission with young kids skating and with music and a lot of just fun entertainment.”

Since Ralph Wilson Stadium, home of the NFL’s Buffalo Bills, is designed for football, many obstacles must be overcome to turn it into the world’s-largest ice hockey venue.

“Just trying to understand all the different elements you have pre-built in an arena and trying to fit those into a football stadium,” Renzulli said. “I think when you look at it from a broadcast standpoint, you’re talking about camera positions and sightlines. Also, you have the locker rooms, the infrastructure that you need for the refrigeration system – all those types of pieces aren’t pre-built. You have to try to layer those into a stadium that’s not typically set up for something like this.”

Renzulli and his army of workers began the site preparation immediately after the Bills played the New York Giants on Sunday.

“We tarped field and removed the goalposts and spent the next few hours just doing a site survey, getting our points that we start to level the field with since there’s a nine-inch crown in that football field,” Renzulli said. “We started with that and slowly started leveling that field off with about 3,000 sheets of plywood and Styrofoam. Then, we started the rink and the ice process.”

Staging an event of this magnitude requires a lot of assistance. According to Renzulli, all parties involved in the NHL Winter Classic have been more than helpful.

“There are quite a few. No.1, the Buffalo Bills has been instrumental in guiding us through this. The Sabres staff, being there locally, has been a great help in trying to help us understand how we need to prepare a football stadium for hockey. The ice rink people we’re bringing in, including Dan Craig, the “ice guru” has made a number of trips up there,” he said. “The Penguins staff – we’ve gone to Pittsburgh to talk to them. There has been a boatload of people involved in the process of trying to download all the information from them. We’ve talked to people from Edmonton. We have people coming in from California and Minnesota and various parts of the country.”

Of course, the weather – good and bad – remains a primary concern for all involved in the game, given the unpredictable outdoor conditions in the Buffalo area at this time of year.

“I think there are a whole host of those issues that we’ve spent countless hours here discussing internally. All I can say is that we have many contingencies put in place,” Renzulli said. “We have people waiting in the wings if we get snow, obviously, that’s a major concern. We’re watching the weather on a daily basis and as we go through, if it is going to impact us, then we have plans already set in place and ready to go to make this game happen regardless.”

If the NHL Winter Classic fares well, the event could happen again in the future.

“We’re going to make that evaluation after Jan. 1. We’ll see how it all works out,” Renzulli said. “There’s been a lot of writing in the press already about other teams that are looking to host a game and we’ll come out of this, evaluate it – if it’s successful, we’ll make changes to make it better and then figure out where we go next.”


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