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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

Every member of the Sabres and Penguins who will skate today in Ralph Wilson Stadium has certainly played outside before, whether it was on a frozen lake or some ramshackle backyard rink.

But take it from the select few who have done it in the great outdoors on an elite level: The experience will be unlike any they've ever gone through.

Last week in HSBC Arena, Philadelphia Flyers captain Jason Smith smiled and chuckled when asked his impressions of what the Sabres and Penguins will feel like today. Smith was the Edmonton Oilers' captain on Nov. 22, 2003, when they played Montreal outdoors in Commonwealth Stadium.

The 4-3 Montreal win, billed as "The Heritage Classic," drew a crowd of 57,167 on a day when the temperature dipped below zero. That league-record attendance figure will be shattered today.

"Once I got over the bitterness of the cold, it was pretty amazing to see the rink sitting in the middle of a football field and to see the amount of fans," Smith recalled. "It was a completely different atmosphere than any of us ever had playing hockey."

The league says 47 players on 22 teams have played in the three recent major outdoor games -- the Heritage Classic, the 2006 Frozen Tundra Classic in Green Bay between Ohio State and Wisconsin and the 2001 Cold War in East Lansing, Mich., that pitted Michigan State and Michigan.

Sabres goalie Ryan Miller and Penguins forward Adam Hall were Michigan State teammates in 2001. Pittsburgh forward Georges Laraque and goaltender Ty Conklin, who backed up Miller last year in Buffalo, played for Edmonton in '03.

The Michigan-Michigan State game drew a world record crowd of 74,554, and that figure could be in jeopardy today.

"At the far end of the tunnel, you saw the stadium, the crowd noise and the sheer number of people," Hall said. "There's nothing quite like it. It was quite a long walk [from the tunnel to the ice]. Look at the surface and there's a good 25 yards at least on each side to get to the wall where the fans are. It was quite a scene."

> Great outdoors

It's outdoor hockey. That means that, unlike every indoor rink in the NHL, conditions will be less than perfect. Weather might be a factor, especially in Orchard Park.

Four years ago in Edmonton it was so cold that the ice was actually cracking in spots. The league put portable heaters near the players and that created an unusual feeling.

"It was like you were in Maui on the benches," Smith recalled. "Then you got on the ice, it was freezing. They had those big heaters on the side with the tubes like you have at football games blowing hot air in the bench. It was comfortable on the bench. You'd hit the ice and 10-15 seconds later, your face would just tighten up."

At Michigan State, it was rainy the day before the game and the ice was puddling. On game day, the temperature was in the low 30s and the night was dry. But it was windy.

"I don't know how you prepare for that," Hall said. "Some periods it would be behind you and you feel like you're flying. The next period, you're going into it and you feel like you're in quicksand."

It cost Michigan State $600,000 to stage the event and it was a risk because a crowd of 30,000 was needed for the game to break even. It turned out to be no problem. In the first nine days, 61,000 tickets were sold.

It became the biggest event in college hockey history. Gordie Howe dropped the ceremonial first puck and the game was a thriller, ending in a 3-3 tie. It also served as the forerunner for several more outdoor games this decade.

The biggest was the Heritage Classic, held in the home of the CFL's Edmonton Eskimos. The most memorable image from that evening was the red-and-blue toque that Montreal goaltender Jose Theodore donned atop his mask during the game after he complained he was feeling the cold air on his head through the top of his mask.

Miller is expected to try a blue-and-gold Sabres toque, at least during the warmup today.

"A lot of guys remember [Theodore's] toque and a lot of us had the full hats covering the ears," Smith recalled. "You'd just see guys' faces. It was cold enough that you needed to have your ears covered. Guys tried hot strips in their skates like skiers use. It all depends on the day what you'll need to do."

> All-weather game

What we'll see today has taken place in many different settings. Temperatures have been freezing like they were in Edmonton or games have been played through rain, like 20,000 people sat through in Hamilton, Ont., in 2005 in an all-star game during the NHL lockout.

Until Michigan-Michigan State, the world attendance record was 55,000 in Moscow for a 1957 gold medal game of the world championships against Sweden. The European attendance record of 23,192 set in a 1962 Swedish Elite League game stood up until this year.

On Jan. 14, a crowd of 30,076 was on hand in the local soccer stadium in Bern, Switzerland, to watch the 100th meeting of Swiss rivals SC Bern and SC Langau. Bern, coached by ex-Buffalo defenseman John Van Boxmeer, won the game, 5-2.

Then there were the non-stadium games. A 1991 NHL exhibition featuring the Wayne Gretzky-led Los Angeles Kings and New York Rangers was held in front of 13,000 on an 85-degree night at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.

Last year in Moscow's Red Square, a charity game to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Russian hockey was held that featured the greats of Soviet hockey against retired NHL stars like Billy Smith and Paul Coffey.

Legendary NHL coach Scotty Bowman led the World team in that affair, which ended in a 10-10 tie.

"They built a beautiful rink, put it up a few days before and they kept it up very well," Bowman told NHL.com last month. "The Kremlin offices were right across from the benches. It was very good ice, just perfect, like a normal rink."

> Future plans

Assuming Buffalo's foray into the outdoor world comes off without a hitch, look for more outdoor or stadium games in the future, too.

The Boston Red Sox have pondered having a game in Fenway Park, probably involving local colleges like Boston College or Boston University. There's been talk of an NHL outdoor game in Detroit at Comerica Park and rumors the New York Yankees might be interested in hosting one at the new Yankee Stadium after it opens in 2009.

Philadelphia Flyers General Manager Paul Holmgren said a couple of weeks ago he'd like to pursue an annual game against the Penguins at Penn State's Beaver Stadium -- which could potentially draw 100,000 people.

"Just imagine how intense and fun that would be," said Flyers center R.J. Umberger, a Pittsburgh native. "To play at Penn State there, the fans from Pittsburgh and Philly, it would be insane, probably one of the best games in NHL history."

Another idea floated last month was the possibility of a doubleheader indoors at Detroit's Ford Field -- one game would be a Michigan-Michigan State rematch of the Cold War and the other would pit the Red Wings against an NHL opponent.

The Central Collegiate Hockey Association is pushing the idea, with the thinking that attendance would approach 80,000 and the twinbill would be a big way for the stadium to prepare for its role as host of the NCAA's 2010 Frozen Four.

The stadium already holds the college basketball attendance record of 78,129 for a 2003 game between Michigan State and Kentucky.

"The last thing you want guys doing when they play in one of these is risking injury but it certainly was fun once we got out there," Smith said. "It was a day I'm sure every guy who played in it will remember for a long time, that's for sure.

"They'll find the same thing here. I know they've sold a lot of tickets. It will be a neat day for those guys playing in it and it works out as a pretty big day for the league."

e-mail: mharrington@buffnews.com

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