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2008 Winter Classic at The Ralph: An oral history

It was one game in the snow. One day where they played hockey in a football stadium in Orchard Park. But it forever changed the course of special events for the National Hockey League.

Although the elements made it less than an artistic success as a hockey game, the 2008 Winter Classic between the Buffalo Sabres and Pittsburgh Penguins was an aesthetic, television and marketing smash. It became the forerunner of a decade full of outdoor games and it marked Jan. 1 as a day for hockey and not just for college football bowls.

Over the last few weeks, The Buffalo News reminisced with several of the principals involved in the game. The following is an oral history containing many of their recollections:

The Prelude

Both teams practiced in the stadium on New Year's Eve. It was sunny and windy, and the conditions were actually colder than game day. Thinking sun and wind would be the main issues the next day, the NHL decided to make the teams switch ends at the 10-minute mark of the third period and 2 1/2-minute mark of overtime -- no matter where the puck was on the ice. If you were in the middle of a breakaway, tough luck (that didn't happen).

The jerseys were fabulous. The Penguins were in their '60s and '70s baby blues and the Sabres returned to the classic whites they had won from their birth in 1970 until the end of the Memorial Auditorium era in 1996. In 2008, remember, the Sabres were in the middle of the ultra-unpopular era of wearing what became known as the Slugs.

The atmosphere is electric for games in the elements From Heritage Classic to the college Cold War, outdoor clashes hold special memories for the players, coaches and fans who have shivered through them

The crowd of 71,217 set a record for the NHL at the time, since broken by more than 100,000 who saw the Leafs-Red Wings Winter Classic in 2014 at the University of Michigan. Fans in the lower bowl of the Ralph spent the entire game on their feet -- because those in about the bottom 10 rows had to stand to have any chance to see the game over the boards and the players benches. That meant everyone in that level behind them had to stand as well.

The teams took the ice simultaneously from the tunnel end, walking on rubber mats that led them to the ice as lighted torches and fireworks heralded their arrival.

A crowd of more than 71,000 looks on.  (James P. McCoy/Buffalo News)

Doug Allen sang "O, Canada", tenor Ronan Tynan sang "God Bless America" and Blackhawk helicopters flew overhead following the music. The Sabres had to issue mea culpa statements the next day about why the Star-Spangled Banner was never performed at the game. Tynan had become famous singing the song at Yankee Stadium, but always during the seventh-inning stretch in the wake of 9/11 and never as a substitute for the anthem.

The NBC broadcast was done by Doc Emrick and Ed Olczyk, with Darren Pang at ice level between the benches. Bob Costas and Mike Milbury were on hand to host pregame and intermissions. CBC's "Hockey Night in Canada" did its own broadcast with Jim Hughson and Craig Simpson on the call and legendary intermission tandem of Ron MacLean and Don Cherry in the house. Rick Jeanneret and Harry Neale were on the Sabres' radio call, with WGR reporter Paul Hamilton at ice level doing live updates rather than in the press box. More than 11,000 fans were in then-HSBC Arena watching on the jumbotron.

Neale on the air that day: What does this place hold, 73,000 people? Ten years from now, there will be 273,000 people from Buffalo who said they were at this game.

Sabres winger Jason Pominville: I drove to the rink well earlier than I arrive to the arena and the parking lot was full of people. There were people tailgating, bonfires, playing hockey. You were like, 'Oh man, this is pretty cool. This is going to be fun.' We walked out of the tunnel to fireworks, there were choppers in the air. It was amazing.

Sabres defenseman Brian Campbell, now an analyst for NBCSports Chicago: You looked to your right and you saw four guys with no shirts on and you're like, 'Oh wow, this is going to be crazy.' Then it's snowing and it WAS crazy.

Penguins center Sidney Crosby: Right away, I remember stepping out with the weather and the crowd and the atmosphere. The setting was perfect. Everyone was so into it. The crowd was so pumped about seeing a game outdoors and with the proximity there were Pittsburgh fans there too. It was a great sight and the game was awesome.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman: I remember walking on the field in Buffalo and we were playing in front of nearly 72,000 people. We don't normally do that. I get chills thinking about how much fun that was and what that feeling was like. Then you add the snow effect. You couldn't have scripted a better first Winter Classic. Our teams, our players, the communities we play in, the venues can't get enough of this and it goes back to that first game.

Campbell: You were nervous going into it. It was weird. We didn't know. There was no real hoopla. I know they announced the jerseys but it wasn't that big a deal. There was no HBO show, nothing. We got there the day of the game and somebody told us, 'Hey there's merchandise if you guys want to buy some." And I was like, "What, there's merchandise?' It was a regular-season game.

NBC play-by-play man Doc Emrick: I remember one of the Penguins was following Colby Armstrong down the ramp when the fireworks were going off and the bagpipes were playing, and 70,000-some people were cheering, something these guys had never heard before. And it was Ryan Malone who tapped Armstrong on the shoulder and said, ‘Lifetime memory here, 'Army.' Lifetime memory here.’ And, of course, Armstrong was the one who scored 21 seconds in from Crosby and got a lifetime memory out of it.

Crosby: We looked at it as something that we might not be able to do again. You're thinking that this could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. There was talk they might have interest in keep trying to do them but at the time it was a first-time event and it was just cool to be a part of it.

Conditions

The snow on the ice made it tough to complete long clears or long passes. There were only four icing infractions in a 65-minute game. The zamboni made a couple runs at the 10-minute mark of each period and ice repairs were necessary from time to time, with NHL ice guru Dan Craig paying particular attention to a hole that kept reforming near the blue line at the scoreboard end of the stadium.

All the stoppages for zamboni trips and ice repairs, combined with the overtime and shootout created a 3-hour, 11-minute game. Veteran observers figured it was the Sabres' longest regular-season affair since the brawl era of the 1970s, where full-scale melees would routinely delay games for 20 or 30 minutes at a time.

Play is stopped for ice repairs during the first period of the inaugural Winter Classic (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Bettman: When I was driving to the stadium, it was raining and it wasn't snowing yet and that was my concern. The temperature was right on the bubble we had at the time and I really spent most of the game holding my breath the temperature would stay low enough.

Sabres goalie Ryan Miller, now with Anaheim: Ours turned out to be fun for everybody because of the snow and the situation. Hockey-wise, you don't want a bunch of snow and ice issues. You want a clean game if it's going to count for points. But we embraced it that it would be a unique situation for both sides.

Campbell: Before it you were excited but a little bit like, "Oh boy, we've got to play outside, what's that going to be like?" You were nervous going into it. It was weird. We didn't know what that would be like. You played a lot differently with the puck the first minute or minute and a half of the game and  the first minute after the Zamboni came out than you did the middle of the period. When you lose, you get frustrated with the ice conditions because it was a real game that counted.

 

More Campbell: You wanted to play a good game in front of that kind of crowd. You thought it would be a regular game but then you realized it was going to be a low-scoring game because of the conditions. In all honesty, there was a degree of unpreparedness on the league's part on how to do things back then. I think they learned a lot from that game. I remember poor Dan Craig coming out trying to clean the ice, just grabbing gobs of ice with his bare hands. He had the torches, everything. His hands must have been freezing. It was really interesting that way.

Miller: The predictability of the game was kind of gone. Do I go play the puck behind the net or is it going to get stuck in the corner? Or do I race out to play an icing because it's not going to make it and that guy is going to get it? You had to prepare yourself for the puck not to do what you expect it to do.

More Miller: It was funny to look at the bench and everyone is bundled up. The heaters are on and the snow is swirling around. I hadn't done anything like that since squirts and pee wees. Toward the tunnel end where the wind blows strong, you kind of pictured what the kickers on the football team had to go through. The glass helps a little bit but then the wind is kind of hitting you. I put those foot warmers in my skates and they ran out midway through the third period. Everything started getting a little bit numb and tired.

The game

The puck was dropped just before 1:30 p.m. and the Penguins came right into the Buffalo zone. Crosby walked around Campbell, and Armstrong banged home a rebound just 21 seconds into the game -- the fastest goal from the start of a game Miller gave up in his Buffalo career and still the fastest goal from the start of a Winter Classic.

Miller: You're not happy to get scored on so quick but it's hockey. You have to recover and play. I thought our guys settled in and played a really strong game.

Crosby: I didn't think it was going to be a high-scoring game and then all of a sudden you get that first one and you're thinking it was going to be a lot of fun. All the anticipation and to get one pretty early was exciting.

Sam Flood, NBC executive producer: It was fun that first goal being scored and us taking the first replay ever from an airplane. Someone in the truck said, 'Well, you can’t see the puck go in the net.' I said, 'First time ever you’ve had a replay from an airplane in a hockey game."

***

Campbell tied the game at 1-1 at 1:25 of the second period, taking a cross-ice pass from Tim Connolly and beating Ty Conklin to the top corner.

Emrick: He claims to have scored the most forgotten goal in the Winter Classic, the one between Armstrong and Crosby.

Campbell: I was shooting it trying to get it up in the air and it was lucky. The ice made it tough. You had to be really sure of what you're doing with the snow. I don't have a hard shot anyway but I put everything into it at that point and it's in the top corner.

More Campbell: You didn't hear the crowd like you normally would. It's so big that it took a while for the noise to get down to the field. And we were inside glass too. It wasn't like an open football field. I was like, 'Wait, didn't I score? Are they going to cheer or are they not?' And then all of a sudden after a few seconds you get this noise. It wasn't the high high reaction at first but then it swarmed you from all sides. So it was really cool that way.

***

Buffalo held Pittsburgh without a shot for 24:23 in the game as the Sabres took control of play. The Penguins' last shot of the first period came with 6:17 left, and the Pens didn't get another one until only 1:54 remained in the second. The Sabres outshot them, 14-2, in the period. Neither team scored in the third.

The Sabres outshot the Pens, 7-0, in overtime -- getting five of their shots on a power play as Armstrong took a hooking penalty just before the third-period buzzer. But Conklin saw everything and turned them all away. The final tally was 37-25 for the Sabres but the score was stuck at 1-1 through 65 minutes.

Bettman: The reaction we were getting from phone calls, texts and emails was almost an explosion of excitement. People couldn't believe what they were watching on television because the look was so dramatic and so compelling.

Campbell: You thought it was just people from Buffalo and Pittsburgh watching and that was it. You didn't realize what was going on across Canada and the US and the magnitude of it. People were like, 'OK, I'm going to sit down and watch this. This is crazy.' It's the first time anybody had seen those conditions in a game like that. People and guys on other teams were asking us about the game for weeks after.

Miller: The NHL needed to grab on to something to make our own. Football is great for many reasons but the one game a week where you get buildup, that game is really important. We're playing three, maybe four games a week. Sometimes fans will dismiss a game here or there. You make it seem important, have the hype and the tailgate opportunity where people make a weekend out of the event, then hockey has this special moment. We really needed this.

More Miller: There was a lot of uncertainty that goes with it and it there still is. It's a different environment every time. It's hard to say what you're going to get. Some teams have played in warm conditions, some got colder than expected.

On to a shootout

The Zambonis made several trips around the ice during the game but didn't make the dry scrape before a shootout they normally did back in 2008. It's never been officially explained but it seemed like someone made the decision to keep things moving and not forge yet another delay.

The snow was flying and darkness had moved in as the shootout started. With the entire stadium now on its feet and flashbulbs popping all over, Ales Kotalk burned Conklin with a quick snap shot to give the Sabres a quick lead.

Kotalik, after practice on Jan 2, 2008: You could feel 70,000 pairs of eyes on you. I was just focusing not to lose the puck because there was a lot of snow on the ice.

Miller stopped Erik Christenson but Conklin stopped a Tim Connolly shot that could have put the Sabres in control at 2-0. Instead, Kris Letang came down and flipped a backhander past Miller -- after almost losing the puck in the snow.

Maxim Afinogenov shot third for the Sabres and got too close to Conklin with too much speed and couldn't put a deke past him. Slowly from the bench to center ice headed Crosby. There was laughter in the press box and even a cry of "NBC fix" as No. 87 prepared for the shot that would enter history.

Emrick, on the air as Crosby approached the net: The game on his stick right here.

Emrick, 10 years later on his much replayed call: I used it actually for a game between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia in a regular-season game a couple of years before because I remember I was working with John Davidson. It was a game in which Eddie Olczyk was coaching Pittsburgh. So it must have been ’05-06, the first year that NBC had the rights, and it was still OLN at that time. It just was there. It was an outlet pass in overtime, and Crosby had a breakaway. There was time to think, I guess. So there was it was. I think I’ve only used it twice.

Crosby: I had no idea what I was going to do. I just wanted to make sure I got to the net. It was snowing and the snow was coming up off the ice. I was having a hard time just seeing the puck so I couldn't really deke. I just wanted to get a shot away, to be honest.

Campbell: Guys were just pushing the puck down the ice and you saw the rooster tail of the snow coming up behind it. There was no stickhandling. They were pushing the puck. That was interesting to see. Even on the goal Crosby scored, I felt bad for Ryan because in a normal spot Crosby pulls the puck a lot more and that's your instinct to follow.

Miller: I would have liked to have played it better. Sid takes what you give him. I thought he was dragging the puck through the snow so I wanted to give him more of a "chip check" and I think he saw it coming at the last little second there and changed the angle. I guess you could write that's twice in my career where I made a decision that went wrong on Sid in an important kind of moment (the other, of course, being the overtime goal in the gold medal game of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics). But you make your decision, you make your choice and you kind of live with it.

Pominville: For the league, you couldn't have asked for a better result. NBC, live, snowing, great atmosphere outdoors, what the game ultimately is as a kid. It goes to shootout and he scores the winner by pushing the puck through the snow. He's had a tremendous career but that was one of the first moments the league was probably very happy about Sid scoring a goal.

Crosby: I look back at it with great memories. All the guys on that team were really excited to be a part of that game. To be able to score on a stage like that was really fun as a young player in the league. You appreciate that moment. I look back on it with great memories now and guys we played with back then still talk about the time we had together playing in that game.

Campbell: I was sitting on the bench thinking, 'Jeez, did the NHL set this up this way?' I was thinking it was like the NBA and Patrick Ewing (the much-rumored rigging of the 1984 draft lottery).  Even though I wasn't on the right side of it, it was still neat to see. Everything was perfect for the NHL that day. I was glad that it was in Buffalo.

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