By Alex Szczesny, Marking Director
Every New Years, instead of looking ahead towards the future and to new possibilities, I find myself looking backwards. See, each year on January 1st (or in this case, the 2nd) I sit down to watch the NHL Winter Classic. I love watching the annual outdoor game and I find myself jealous of the people in the crowd.
On January 1st 2008, the first Winter Classic was held at Ralph Wilson Stadium in our own backyard. The experience was easily among the best I have ever had. I think what made it so special, was the novelty of the game itself. The weeks leading up to it, nobody knew what to expect or even how everything would look. Each Winter Classic has added an alumni game, or an AHL or NCAA game. Now, the parking lots are filled with corporate sponsors and fancy private and VIP tailgating sections or multiple stages of entertainment. The Winter Classic has evolved into such a polished and well-planned event, it’s the highlight of the NHL calendar.
This is not to say that the current games have “sold-out,” but sometimes you just need to get into some trouble on your own and veer from the beaten path. For the inaugural Winter Classic, a group of about 15-20 guys in about 5 or 6 cars left for the stadium around 8:30am. We arrived in Orchard Park bright and early and started to set up our tailgating gear, but the weather was not cooperating. The wind was blowing snow sideways and in an instant, I thought I would be in for 3 hours of misery. In true Buffalo fashion, here I was freezing my butt off (with an adult beverage or two) determined to make the most of the day. After a few minutes in doubt, the hockey gods answered our call and the weather broke and produced a cool, yet snow free morning. Instead of any NHL sponsored pavilion or entertainment (as I mentioned, the first one had very little planned), we partied like it was like a late season Bills game. It was just cold drinks, colder weather and my very best friends.
When I got to my seat, I was flanked by my best friend and my dad and we were in the upper level near the net the Sabres defended in the 1st period. It bothers me that the NHL keeps having the Winter Classic in baseball stadiums. I understand that they’re easier to use and there are no worries about scheduling conflicts with late season or playoff football, but a ballpark just doesn’t work for the fans. Fans are too far away in a baseball stadium and the rink is built all the way out in shallow center field. The seats closer to the rink are in the endzones and the seats closer to center ice are behind home plate and farther away. It seems like there is no “perfect” spot.
The game had a rough start as the Penguins scored in the first minute and I thought we could be in for a long afternoon. The rest of the first was played to a stalemate and by now the weather was starting to bother me. After being outdoors since 9am, it doesn’t matter how many layers you have on, it will get cold. It turns out all I needed to warm me up was a Brian Campbell goal to tie the game in the 2nd! Much like the first goal (and both in the shootout), it took place right in front of me. It was in the second period that this event truly became unforgettable to all involved. The snow started to fall in Western New York and produced a great snow globe effect to everyone watching at home. The wind died down and everything looked so pretty. It’s something I will remember forever.
There was no scoring the rest of the game, or in overtime, though the Sabres had many great chances. It was from here that history would be written as Sidney Crosby would score in the shootout and win the game for Pittsburgh. It was the most ideal ending for the league of course as its biggest star scores the game winner, but the hype around Crosby has turned him into public enemy number 1 in many NHL cities, including Buffalo.
Ending aside, nothing more could be asked of the event. The NHL’s second ever outdoor game (first in the US) looked great on TV and it was exciting down to the last shot. The 71,000 plus hockey fans were loud the whole game and you’d be hard pressed to find someone who didn’t have a fabulous time. This is why with each New Year, I find myself wanting to relive that same afternoon over and over. I have been to the Stanley Cup Finals, NCAA Frozen Four and numerous other football, baseball and lacrosse games and I can easily place the Winter Classic in my Top 3 Event Experiences. If you are a hockey fan, or at the very least interested in those marquee events on the sports calendar, you NEED to catch the next Winter Classic live and cross it off your bucket list.
A picture from my seats on that snowy afternoon in 2008.