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Ten years after the 1st Winter Classic, Sabres are headed back outdoors

by Jourdon LaBarber @jourdonlabarber / Sabres.com

If a picture is worth 1,000 words, then what does the Buffalo Sabres' team photo from the 2008 Winter Classic say about that New Year's afternoon in Orchard Park? 

Sabres assistant equipment manager George Babcock remembers the picture well. All of the players and staff arranged at center ice, half of them on one knee, their cheeks red from the bitter cold typical of a mid-winter day in Buffalo. One day later, a then-record 71,217 fans would brave those same conditions to watch the Sabres play the Pittsburgh Penguins at the home of the Buffalo Bills, then known as Ralph Wilson Stadium. 

The Sabres lost that game 2-1 on Sidney Crosby's shootout goal, but even the outcome couldn't sour the overall memory of that day, when a league-wide tradition was born right here in Buffalo. What you should see when you look at that photo, Babcock says, is group of men who were happy - honored, even - to be a part of it. 

"They thought, 'How awesome is this that we get to play in this?' They felt privileged, actually, because every kid played hockey on ice outside for a little while, when they learned to skate or whatever, imagining playing in the NHL," Babcock said.

"Here they are in the NHL, outside, in front of freaking 70,000 fans plus being on TV coast-to-coast. I mean, it's absolutely amazing."

 

On the 10th anniversary of that snowy day in Orchard Park, the Sabres will once again be featured in what's since become a hallmark event for the NHL. The 2018 Bridgestone Winter Classic will pit Buffalo against the New York Rangers at Citi Field in Queens, N.Y., home to baseball's New York Mets.

When the current players caught wind of the possibility back in March, that they might be involved in the next Winter Classic, memories of 2008 became a topic of discussion with the staff members who remain a decade later.

"All the boys were excited to be playing outside," forward Marcus Foligno said. "I remember talking to some of the trainers - George Babcock, [equipment manager] Dave Williams - about the Winter Classic they had here, playing Pittsburgh at New Era Field and how special it was and how cool it was with the snow and playing outdoors. 

"It reminds you of how it was at your young age, when you were a little boy playing at the outdoor rink. I mean, New Year's Eve, New Year's Day in New York City? You can't get any better than that."

The majority of the current Sabres were still kids when that first Winter Classic game was played. Foligno was 16. Defenseman Jake McCabe was 14. Both players said they watched the game as fans, and both gave similar answers when asked about what they remember. 

"It was an entertaining game, the weather conditions were really snowy. I liked it," Foligno said.

"I remember a lot of snow," McCabe said. "That's what's fun. A lot of us grew up in outdoor rinks."

What was an experiment by the League back then has since become a New Year's Day tradition for hockey fans, having made its way to historic sites like Fenway Park in Boston 2009 and Wrigley Field in Chicago in 2010, and having housed a new NHL record of 105,491 fans at the Big House in Ann Arbor, Mich. in 2014. 

Just as the event had given fans something to look forward to on the first day of each year, it's given young players another item to add to the to-do lists for their careers.

"The memories that you can get from a Winter Classic game are pretty special, and obviously only two teams do it a year," Foligno said. "I think that's huge.

"I mean you obviously want to win a Stanley Cup and play in the playoffs, but to play in those special moments kind of shape up a career and make you proud of what you did. To play in a Winter Classic game is definitely something you can check off the bucket list."

"I think it's something cool to say that you've done," McCabe, who played an outdoor game at Soldier Field as a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin, said. "For me, it's a lot of people who can come and watch me play in those things and how much fun they have doing that, how much fun my family had coming to Chicago to watch me play outside. That's a lot of fun for me too."

Having played in that game in Chicago, McCabe, like Babcock, knows the subtleties of the outdoor game, like the pain of taking a puck off the foot in freezing cold weather. 

"I don't know if I'd want any snow," McCabe said, laughing. "Maybe just a nice sunny day that's about 35 to 40 degrees. That'd be just fine with me."

Even if the snow does fall like it did back in 2008, it will only add to the memories. When the players gather at center ice for another team photo, regardless of the weather, you can bet they'll be happy to be there.

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