The Winter Classic Community Rink at Stage AE opened for business at 3 p.m. Friday to long lines filled with eager skaters.
Since time doesn't allow for Pittsburghers to experience skating on the actual rink inside Heinz Field, the Penguins have given them the next best thing by building a rink just outside the stadium's doors.
"It's better than what I thought," Tom McMillan, the Penguins' V.P. of Communications, told NHL.com. "We thought of the backdrop of the city skyline and Mount Washington, the idea that people would feel like they're in the Winter Classic, and it's perfect, it created that. Heinz Field is just over your shoulder so even though you're not on the actual Winter Classic rink, because it's still being built, you're in the Winter Classic when you're here."
Brothers Andrew and James Santelli were two of the hundreds of smiling skaters that touched the ice Friday. Andrew lives in Windermere, Fla., and works at Disney World, so the idea of winter has been foreign to him ever since the 28-year-old moved out of his parents' house in the Pittsburgh region.
"I've been anticipating the Winter Classic and following all the coverage online, but when they said they were going to do this I knew this was something I had to figure out a way to get to with my brother," Santelli said. "It's awesome. The whole experience of the Winter Classic is being outdoors and the purity of skating in the winter, and especially being in Florida I don't really get to experience winter at all so what better way to do it then with something like this."
Santelli decided Friday that he was going to host a Winter Classic party on New Year's Day. Prince and O'Neill did the same thing.
"The Winter Classic coming here is a showcase of the city and the game, and it just gives me goose bumps being out here skating and being able to do this," Prince said. "I can't wait 'til the game on the first. We're going to have a Winter Classic party and then continue to celebrate a day of hockey by going to the game with the Canes against New Jersey that night. It's going to be a whole hockey day. It's going to be awesome."
McMillan was thrilled to see how happy everyone was Friday. He said the team anticipates 12,000 people skating at the Community Rink before it closes to the public late on Jan. 1.
The rink is open on Christmas Day from noon until 9 p.m. There is one public session Sunday afternoon and another Monday night before going to two-a-days next Tuesday through Thursday. It'll be open from 6:30 p.m. until midnight on New Year's Eve and again for two 90-minute sessions following the Winter Classic on New Year's Day.
The rink will stay open on Jan. 2 for seven more games.
"Our goal was to make the week leading up to the Winter Classic a carnival of hockey in Pittsburgh," McMillan said. "The estimate is about 12,000 people on this ice in eight days. We'll have 10,000 at the alumni game and practice (on Dec. 31) and then 65,000 at the Winter Classic. A lot of Pittsburghers are going to remember this for a long time."Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl.
Author: Dan Rosen | NHL.com Senior Writer