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The great outdoors

Passionate fans add spice to NHL's record-setting day

Posted: Tuesday January 1, 2008 9:38PM; Updated: Wednesday January 2, 2008 7:19PM
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Neither sleet, nor snow, nor bitter-cold temps could keep Sabres fan Courtney Kelly from soaking up the entire Winter Classic.
Neither sleet, nor snow, nor bitter-cold temps could keep Sabres fan Courtney Kelly from soaking up the entire Winter Classic.
Photo courtesy of Sean Kelly
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ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- The mood of a crowd is often found on a sign, and in the middle of 71,217 people on Tuesday afternoon, one placard (see right) offered a rich slice of the scene: LOOK MOM, NO ROOF!

In the middle of a football stadium, in a city famous for its snow, the Sabres and Penguins played a game of pond hockey that ended at 4:34 p.m. when Pittsburgh star Sidney Crosby, the league's MVP, pushed a goal past Buffalo goaltender Ryan Miller, the game's best netminder. "You could not have scripted it any better," said Sabres center Adam Mair. "You have the best player in the world coming down on arguably one of the best goaltenders in the world."

Somewhere tonight, an NBC and NHL executive are sharing champagne -- at least until the television ratings come out. No, the hockey wasn't great and the scoring was limited at Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Stadium -- both teams skated hard but highlight-reel plays were limited with a slather of snow on the ice and blowing wind -- but the players were merely secondary actors to Mother Nature and the crowd. It was the largest collection of people ever to watch a professional hockey game, and the parking lots outside the stadium started filling up shortly after the sun broke.

The tailgating scene was akin to an NFL game or the Coca-Cola 500. Outside the stadium, hockey games were held. Inside, flurries dropped on the shoulders of kids playing pickup ice hockey where O.J. Simpson and Thurman Thomas once ran. How strange was the scene? Bob Costas spoke in front of a Zamboni and reporters in the press box were as quick to surf onto weather.com as they were to their own sports sites. A Sabres p.r. official offered an all-time winner in the pre-game notes:

Both the Sabres and Penguins are 0-0-0 all-time on Tuesdays in Jan. when playing a game outdoors. Not anymore.

Crosby said he would remember the warmup and pregame pomp more than anything else. The teams first took the ice at 1:15 p.m. in a made-for-Las Vegas scene, featuring bursts of fire escorting them out of the tunnel. Singer Doug Allen offered a heartfelt version of the Canadian anthem and noted Irish tenor Ronan Tynan brought down the house with a crackling "God Bless America." Pictures of Sabres fans serving in the military appeared on the Jumbotron. Moments later, four Blackhawk helicopters soared over the stadium. Game on.

With the game-time temperature 33.1 degrees Fahrenheit (the average temperature in an NHL arena is 62 degrees), it was practically Boca Raton-like in Buffalo; and it turned out to be a warm occasion thanks to the crowd, who deserved the first, second and third stars. They stood for much of the game, and the best seats in the house, based on one reporter's research, were in Row 38 of Section 332, seats 28-30, where a group of friends from Niagara Falls paid $44.75 each to sit in the last row of the stadium, high above center ice. They were rewarded with a perfect view of the game.

"This is too good," said Aaron Sawyer, a 20-year-old from Niagara Falls who sat in seat 30. "The snow is big and chunky, and we can see everything."

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