The Pittsburgh Penguins will be part of history on Tuesday.
The team takes on the Buffalo Sabres in the Amp Energy NHL Winter Classic in the first NHL game to be played outdoors in the United States.
Ralph Wilson Stadium, home to the NFL’s Buffalo Bills, will provide a unique setting to the Penguins and Sabres, as well as the 70,000-plus expected to be in attendance.
“I think we all feel pretty lucky to be a part of this,” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. “A lot of us, while growing up, have played outside before on lakes or ponds or outdoor rinks. I think we’re all pretty excited to do it.”
Tickets for the event sold out in a matter of minutes. So, the players are expecting an exhilarating and electric environment when they take the ice on a temporary rink constructed on the middle of the stadium’s football field.
“With that amount of fans and being somewhat close to Pittsburgh, we’ll get a lot of support, too,” Crosby said. “I think the crowd will be somewhat divided a bit, which will be nice and we’ll have a pretty good atmosphere, so we’re looking forward to it.”
The environment will be like any other the players have experienced for themselves.
“I think with the fans, especially, it’s going to be that much better. I don’t think I have ever played in front of that many people,” Penguins center Jordan Staal said. “It’s just like a football game. It’s going to be pretty neat. We’re ready for it and I hope we have a lot of fun.”
While the game represents an important two points for both teams, the Penguins hope to enjoy the experience and all the hoopla surrounding the contest, which will be telecast at 1 p.m. nationally on NBC. The game will bring back memories of when the players first started to learn the game of hockey on outdoor rinks and ponds in their earlier years.
“I have a played a few outdoor games growing up. I was outside a lot. It’s definitely going to be a new experience for us. I think it’ll be a lot of fun,” Staal said. “Growing up, my brothers and I were outside a lot on outdoor rinks. I don’t think I will be used to it, but, maybe hopefully, I will have a little advantage. It’s just going to be a new experience and I think everyone will go out and enjoy it.”
Crosby skated outdoors last year with friends, but certainly not at the level of this event.
“I got outside for a little outdoor game last Christmas when I went home,” he said. “There’s just something about being outside and playing hockey that has a special feeling. It probably has a lot to do with the fact that that’s where a lot of people begin to play. I think we’re all pretty lucky to have this chance.”
The contest will be unlike any other for the players because of the environment. Since it’s outdoors, the teams have a whole different set of adjustments to make because of the temperature, wind, precipitation, lighting, ice conditions, etc.
“I am sure it will be a little different,” Staal said. “Ice is ice and hockey is hockey. It’s just a matter of who shows up and plays harder.”
The Penguins have a small advantage in that two players on their roster took part in the Heritage Classic on Nov. 22, 2003, in Edmonton, Alberta. In that event, Edmonton and Montreal played in the first regular-season outdoor game in NHL history.
Penguins goaltender Ty Conklin started between the pipes for the Oilers in that game, while winger Georges Laraque skated for Edmonton in a 4-3 loss to the Canadiens. Both players have fond memories of that day.
“It was cold. It was exciting to be part of, certainly,” Conklin said. “To be part of the two events would be neat. Hopefully, the weather will be a lot better than it was in Edmonton.”
Temperatures on that day at Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium reached minus-22 F with the wind chill.
“It was cold,” Laraque said. “I don't think it can get as cold in Buffalo. One of the problems with having an outdoor game is that we can’t control the temperature. It could be as warm in Buffalo as it was cold in Edmonton, or it could be a very cold day. Or, it could snow heavily. Let’s hope it's just a good day for a hockey game. I’m really looking forward to this game in Buffalo and my teammates are, too.”
Conklin and the rest of the players wore multiple layers under their uniforms – triple the amount of clothes they usually use for a regular NHL contest.
“I wore this big neoprene layer, a neoprene suit basically underneath my gear, which was different,” he said. “I am used to sweating and being actually pretty wet. So, being pretty dry was a little tough, but everybody had to deal with something.”
The biggest challenge, especially for a goaltender, is keeping warm, especially when the action is at the other end of the rink and the wind is cutting through you.
“You try to move around as much as you can. You certainly have more clothes on underneath than you normally would for a normal game.” Conklin said. “It’s different, but everybody has to deal with some adversity, so I don’t think there’s anything different.”
Between periods, Conklin didn’t make any adjustments to his equipment or clothing – he just gravitated toward the heaters.
“I just took my skates off and tried to warm my feet up,” he said.
Penguins winger Adam Hall has experience playing in an outdoor game as he took part in college hockey’s version of the NHL Winter Classic when his Michigan State Spartans took on the Michigan Wolverines in the “Cold War” game at Spartan Stadium on Oct. 6, 2001.
“I think as far as my memories, you know, walking out of that tunnel. At the far end of the tunnel, you saw the far end of the stadium, the crowd. It was a distant roar,” he said. “I just remember the crowd noise, just the sheer number of people. There’s nothing quite like it.”
Hall experienced first-hand the effect of the elements in the open-air environment.
“I think just lessons we take away, that I took away, were just kind of things, like as far as I know, the conditions that I remember, the wind,” he said. “I don’t know how you prepare for it, but it’s something that you kind of maybe expect. Some periods, the wind would be behind you and you’d feel like you were flying. The next period, you’re changing ends and you’re skating right into it and it feels like you’re in quicksand. As far as the temperature, too, you just put on an extra layer or two underneath to make sure you’re staying warm out there, depending on the conditions of the day.”
Hall will make sure he does something this time that he didn’t do before – stay near the heaters when he’s on the bench.
“I think something that I didn’t do last time that I might consider, if there’s some type of hand warmers or something like that you might be able to put in your gloves or skates,” he said. “Maybe something, like if they have space heaters on the benches that will keep guys’ hands and feet warm, too.”
Regardless of the obstacles of playing outdoors and staying warm, the Penguins are excited to take part in the NHL Winter Classic.
“It’s something that not everybody gets a chance to do,” Conklin said. “To be part of it once was neat. To be part of it twice would be really neat.”