Winter Classic set up unusual
Workers truck snow back into stadium
Monday, December 31, 2007
The center ice logo at Ralph Wilson Stadium is ready for the outdoor game tomorrow between the Penguins and the Buffalo Sabres.

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Locals will tell you that it is not all that unusual to see bare grass -- large tracts of it, even -- on the Niagara Frontier at this time of year.

And they will do it with a straight face.

That might be a climatological reality, but it certainly defies much of the conventional wisdom about winter in this corner of the world. Which, distilled to a phrase, is that what passes for a snow shower here would be considered a blizzard in a lot of places.

That is why one of the enduring images of a game the NHL is billing as the "Winter Classic" is sure to be that of snow being trucked into -- not out of -- Ralph Wilson Stadium, where the Penguins and Buffalo will play an outdoor game at 1:20 p.m. tomorrow.

  • Who: Penguins vs. Sabres.
  • What: Winter Classic 2008, an outdoor hockey game.
  • When: 1:20 p.m.
  • Where: Ralph Wilson Stadium, Buffalo, N.Y.
  • TV: WPXI.

Workers began hauling snow into the stadium Saturday, and still were at it yesterday afternoon. It is intended strictly as a visual prop, to enhance the aesthetics of NBC's national telecast of the game by hiding the plywood and tarpaulins that cover much of the stadium floor.

Forecasts called for an inch or two of snow to fall last night, but if nature doesn't provide a top coat of fresh, white snow, workers will add a layer before game time, because much of what is in place now is dirty after sitting around for the better part of a week.

Don Renzulli, senior vice president of events/entertainment for the NHL, said two dump trucks spent about six hours hauling snow out of the stadium after it fell last Sunday night, and started bringing it back Saturday.

Having nature put down a cosmetic covering, he said, "would make me very happy."

Not nearly as pleased as Dan Craig, the NHL's facilities operations manager and the guy responsible for the quality of the temporary ice surface that has been installed the past week, will be if he receives favorable reviews after the teams practice this afternoon, however.

Those workouts not only will give the players a chance to get used to the rink, but will provide a dry run to detect snags that can be corrected before game time.

"At that point, we'll just tweak the last few things and we'll be ready to go," Renzulli said.

Craig went for a brief skate on the main rink -- there is a smaller, secondary one on which children will skate as part of the pregame and between-periods entertainment -- yesterday, and gave a positive review of the ice conditions.

"It had a good feel to it, a good base to it," he said.

The critical variable, at this point, is the weather, and league officials are cautiously optimistic that it won't be a major problem.

"Thankfully, it looks like -- and we're keeping our fingers crossed -- we're going to have pretty good weather conditions," NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said.

Temperatures are expected to crest in the low- to mid-30s, although wind could become an issue. There also could be accumulating snow Monday night and during the day Tuesday, but that won't necessarily be a significant complication.

For while commissioner Gary Bettman has the authority to temporarily halt play if squalls cause visibility issues that could imperil players' safety or disrupt the telecast, snow shouldn't affect the playing surface.

"It can snow and we'll just remove it with the machines," Craig said. "No problems."

Because the wind could put one team at a competitive disadvantage under the conventional NHL game format, which call for each club to spend two periods in one end of the rink and just one in the other, the Penguins and Sabres will switch sides midway through the third period.

What's more, Daly confirmed yesterday that play will be stopped when precisely 10 minutes of the period have expired, regardless of what is going on at that moment. A player could be in mid-breakaway or ready to toss a puck into an open net, but when the midpoint of the period arrives, a buzzer will sound and play will be declared dead.

"Both teams thought that was the fairest approach," Daly said. He acknowledged that the stipulation about switching ends could be waived if teams agree to do so before the game, but added that, "the weather is unpredictable enough that they're not going to request something like that."

The weather, of course, is out of the league's control. Pretty much everything else will get a lot of attention until the opening faceoff.

"There's no relaxing [until game time]," Craig said. "None. Zero."

Dave Molinari can be reached at
First published on December 31, 2007 at 12:00 am