NEW YORK – Jack Eichel stared ahead from the corner of 31st Street and Seventh Avenue, snow and people swirling around him. A few blocks away, there he was again, stick in hand and in full Buffalo Sabres uniform.
In both instances, he was the marquee player in ads for the Winter Classic. It's hard to walk anywhere in midtown Manhattan without seeing a sign for Monday's game.
Buffalo's poster boy knows it's more than a game.
"It's obviously a big stage, right?" Eichel said. "You want to put your best foot forward and show the world what you can do.
"You just want to enjoy it, you know what I mean?"
The Sabres are intent on making everything about the Winter Classic enjoyable and memorable. They've flown in family and friends of everyone involved. The children of staff members are mingling with the wives of players. Lifelong buddies are in town.
"Just being able to share the whole experience with my family and friends will be cool," said Eichel, who has a group of 25 in the Big Apple. "That's one of the best parts about it probably. The Sabres have done such a great job of giving us so many opportunities to bring so many people here and really make them a part of the event."
Almost to a man, the players said sharing the experience with their families will be the highlight. The Sabres have the ice in Citi Field from 10 a.m. to noon Sunday, and they're splitting the time with a practice and family skate.
"That's going to be a lot of fun having our families out there on the rink, taking pictures," right wing Jordan Nolan said. "Just the whole experience, it's the total package for me."
Since its debut in Buffalo in 2008, the Winter Classic has become one of the NHL's marquee events. The game is almost secondary.
As Marco Scandella described his one outdoor game, he looked and sounded like a kid on Christmas. The defenseman was star-struck not only by the atmosphere last year in Minnesota, but by looking up and seeing a military flyover. The roar of the jets tingled his spine.
There will be another flyover Monday as four Air Force F15s plan to buzz the New York Mets' stadium.
"I’m just going to enjoy the moment," Scandella said Saturday after a short hike to Newark, N.J., for practice. "It's going to be a lot of fun."
The fun isn't limited to fighter jets. The NHL is hosting a fan festival outside the stadium. Two members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – drummer Max Weinberg of the E Street Band and guitarist Ace Frehley of KISS – will join Buffalo's Goo Goo Dolls in performing inside. The U.S. Olympic hockey teams will be announced during the second intermission.
New York does things big, and this will be no exception.
"Both games outside in New York were my best games and favorite ones," said Sabres left wing Benoit Pouliot, whose four outdoor games include two with the Rangers in Yankee Stadium in 2014. "It's New York City. The atmosphere was unbelievable. There was a little snow coming down, too, which made the scene pretty nice."
Monday's forecast is sunshine and 22 degrees.
"Hopefully it snows out there," said Scandella. "I know it's going to be a cold one."
It's also going to be fun.
"Just being a part of something like that is pretty cool, being able to say that you played in that game," Eichel said.
While the family time, rock bands and fighter jets will enhance the experience, the Sabres are keeping in mind it's still a regular-season game. They've been in last place in the Eastern Conference since Nov. 15 (and they spent plenty of days at the bottom before that), and they want to use the big stage as a springboard to better things.
"It's a big event," goaltender Robin Lehner said. "It's going to be fun to play in. It's going to be a really fun experience.
"It's also two important points for us, you know? We want to keep this going. We want to gain some traction."