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Sabres intrigued by reported Winter Classic matchup with Rangers

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- There's plenty of hockey fan in Jack Eichel and one game that's been appointment television for the Buffalo Sabres' center since he was 11 years old is the NHL Winter Classic. It looks like Eichel is about to get off his couch and get some star billing in the game.

According to reports Wednesday in Newsday, plans are being finalized for the Sabres to meet the New York Rangers in the next Winter Classic on Jan. 1, 2018 at Citi Field in Queens, the home of the New York Mets. With Buffalo one of NBC's top local television markets, an American star like Eichel is sure to get plenty of attention in one of the league's premier showcases.

"Being part of the whole buildup to the event and being able to play outside would be great," Eichel said after practice Wednesday at the Los Angeles Kings' facility. "It's something you watch growing up every year, an event everyone looks forward to. In my house, I can tell you it was highly watched. It would be awesome, super cool. I know nothing is set in stone yet but to maybe play in New York City against the Rangers would be a lot of fun."

The Winter Classic has never been held in New York. There were two Stadium Series games played in Yankee Stadium in 2014, matching the Rangers against both the New York Islanders and New Jersey Devils. Sources confirm the plan is for the Sabres to be the home team, because the tax arrangement between Madison Square Garden and New York City does not allow the Rangers to play a home game in another facility. The Sabres are thus expected to have only 40 home games in KeyBank Center during the 2017-18 season.

The NHL generally does not announce its plans for the game until the summer. There had been chatter for more than a year that the Sabres were interested in hosting the 2018 game in a nod to the 10th anniversary of their iconic shootout loss to Pittsburgh played in the snow of Orchard Park on Jan. 1, 2008. But that speculation was put to rest when plans were announced last year for an outdoor game as part of the 2018 World Junior Championships.

Team USA and Team Canada will be playing in Orchard Park on Dec. 29 and officials from the Sabres and Bills have said it would be impossible to turn the stadium around in 3-4 days to accommodate two crowds in the 70,000 range. Having the Sabres involved, even out of town, would be a tribute to them as the first hosts.

Eichel said he vividly recalls the first Classic, the Penguins' 2-1 win over Buffalo in Ralph Wilson Stadium that was cemented on Sidney Crosby's shootout goal against Ryan Miller.

"I was watching that at home a long time ago and what you remember most is the weather," Eichel said. "You hear all different things from guys who have played in it. You hear terrible experiences with conditions, whether it's too cold, or snowy or hard to see and rainy but I've heard guys say ice was nice and hard and good temperatures. It really all depends on the weather."

Defenseman Cody Franson played for Toronto in the 2014 Winter Classic against Detroit in front of a league-record crowd of 105,491 in Michigan Stadium.

"It was probably one of the coolest experiences of my life," Franson said. "You're talking 110,000 people or so and it was snowing and cold. They were doing music with the crowd, everybody jumping, and it had that college atmosphere. It was also one of the hardest games to play in. The snow, the cold, shoveling. The cold plays on you. I use a grippy stick and when it's that cold, there's no grip on your stick."

Coach Dan Bylsma led the Penguins during the 2011 game in Heinz Field, a loss to the Washington Capitals. It was the first time the league had done a reality show following the teams in advance of the game. The premiere of the HBO series, which spent a lot of time with Bylsma in his home and at the rink, was a critically acclaimed production that has become an annual outgrowth of the game.

"It was more than one game. In some ways, it felt like the Super Bowl a little bit," Bylsma said. "You're building for four weeks. There's a lot of pomp and circumstance. A lot of what you're talking is talking about the game that's coming up down the road even though you're playing the regular season games as we go along."

The Winter Classic, more of an experiment in 2008 until the Sabres-Penguins game quickly made it must-see TV, has been staged in locales like Fenway Park and Wrigley Field. The Rangers previously played in it in 2012, when they beat Philadelphia in Citizens Bank Park, home of the Phillies. This year's game featured the St. Louis Blues and Chicago Blackhawks in Busch Stadium.

Teams routinely break out new sweaters for the game and the "Road to the Winter Classic" reality show has been shown in recent years on the Epix network. There is also usually a game featuring alumni of the two teams the day before the main event.

"It would be unbelieveable," said Sabres center Ryan O'Reilly. "I've never played in one and I've always wanted to. It's a really cool event the NHL does. They do a great job of selling that game and promoting it. It's a fun thing to be a part of for sure.

"I know every guy on the ice on the team would be thrilled to play in one of those. Especially with a rival like the Rangers. Being in Buffalo, you know a lot of people hate the Rangers."

"It's a unique opportunity, a special thing," Bylsma said. "There's a lot about it that's special. You're playing the game outside going back to the roots, but it's a carnival-type setting. It would be a huge opportunity for this organization to have that."

For his part, Eichel would want to make all the buildup worth his time.

"It would be different than just another game," he said. "There's more at stake because you'd really want to say you won your game in the Winter Classic. There would be some personal satisfaction there."

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