The NHL Network is broadcasting a 10-year anniversary special detailing the very first Winter Classic on Wednesday night.
With the Buffalo Sabres and the New York Rangers preparing to meet in the 2018 Winter Classic, NHL Network is looking back at the very first edition of what has become one of the most popular games on the hockey calendar.
Almost every NHL player has skated outdoors on a pond or rink. Ten years ago, on Jan. 1, 2008, these childhood memories became a reality as the Buffalo Sabres hosted the Pittsburgh Penguins at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo, NY.
Elite Sports New York was lucky enough to be given access to a documentary that covers that inaugural Winter Classic. NHL Network Originals: The First Winter Classic, Hockey Goes Outside is narrated by Michael Keaton. It will air on the NHL Network Wednesday night at 8:00 p.m. ET.
Members of the 2008 Penguins, including Sidney Crosby, Colby Armstrong, Tyler Kennedy and former head coach Michel Therrien, along with members of the 2008 Sabres—current winger Jason Pominville, Brian Campbell, Ryan Miller and former head coach and current New York Rangers assistant coach Lindy Ruff—are featured in the film. NBC broadcasters Mike “Doc” Emrick, Darren Pang, Bob Costas and members of the NHL Facilities Operations team also discuss the making of the 2008 event.
As the documentary discussed, Jan.1, New Year’s Day, was always a big college football date. Due to some scheduling changes, this date was considered open and the NHL and their television partner, NBC, thought this would be a great opportunity to get more fans to experience hockey in a different environment.
A new hockey tradition was born
Of course, the first question to be asked was would the league be able to sell out a 73,000 seat stadium to watch hockey on New Years Day? “Tickets sold out in 18 minutes,” remarked NHL commissioner Gary Bettman in the film. The interest in an outdoor game was great and the hometown fans wanted to come cheer on their Sabres while getting to see a then-20-year-old phenom, Crosby, in person.
Now that the locations and teams were decided, the next big question to be answered was whether a rink that met NHL specifications could be constructed on a football field.
That responsibility fell on the shoulders of Dan Craig, the NHL’s vice president of facility operations and his team. Build a regulation NHL rink, outdoors, in challenging weather conditions, in a week. This was a unique part of the documentary, as viewers get to see what it truly takes to transform a football field into an NHL rink.
Craig and his team were supposed to start this transformation following the final home game for the Buffalo Bills. But it didn’t start well, as poor weather conditions backed up the entire process about three days. His team was eventually able to get the rolled piping down and the glycol flowing through the piping, without any issues. The dasher boards and plexiglass then went up and the refrigeration machine began operating.
Mother Nature was not done!
The day of the game, Buffalo was dealing with a mix of rain and snow that soon turned into a full snowstorm as faceoff was set to begin. “It was kind of like playing in a snow globe,” said Sabres goalie Ryan Miller.
Michel Therrien and Lindy Ruff brought their teams out on to the ice to the delight of the 73,000 screaming fans. What was once a fantasy was now a reality for so many. The snow continued to fall in Orchard Park, NY as the game was set to begin.
“Being a kid, growing up playing outside, that’s where you dreamed of playing in the NHL,” said Crosby. “It certainly brought you back to those times as soon as you stepped foot outside.”
This was not just a hockey game anymore. It was a historic sporting event.
With two points on the line, the Sabres and Penguins did not disappoint. Just 21 seconds into the Winter Classic, Colby Armstrong put the Penguins up 1-0. “It’s still the fastest goal,” Armstrong remarked. “I watch every outdoor game now and watch the first 20-or-something seconds and I go, ‘OK, I’ve still got it.’”
The score remained that way as the teams battled the elements throughout the game. As the documentary continued, different players—Crosby, Armstrong, Jason Pominville and Miller—discussed what was going on in the game and how they were feeling.
Broadcaster Mike “Doc” Emerick tells a funny story of how his notes were under a piece of plexiglass that became useless as the weather turned them into a colorful smear of illegible words. “I still have them,” Emerick said, “though I can’t read them.”
The score remained 1-0 Penguins heading into the third period. By this point, the ice conditions had become a concern as parts of the ice near the benches needed to continually be patched up. Every chance they had, Craig and his team were out there doing their best to keep the ice safe for the players.
The Sabres tied the game at one on a goal by defenseman Brian Campbell. That’s how regulation ended. On a snowy winter day in Buffalo, the players and the fans would get to play outside for a little longer.
As the overtime ended, the two teams were ready for the shootout. Most fans expected the game would be decided by Crosby. As it turned out, the fans were right. “With the game on his stick”, Doc Emerick described, Crosby skated toward Miller as the snow fell all around the stadium, and beat Miller through the five-hole, giving Pittsburgh a 2-1 win.
“I was trying to factor in there’s a lot of snow out here, thinking he might just shoot and Sid has a good shot,” Miller said. “He can pick kind of anywhere he wants to go. He made a conservative play and I was trying to be patient and was a little bit late on the play.”
The documentary covers all the angles leading up to and through the Winter Classic. As the NHL Network does with its original programming, the fans get a look behind the scenes at the players and officials involved in putting the spectacle together.
The success of the inaugural Winter Classic has led to many more events for the National Hockey League. The documentary explores how the success of the 2008 NHL Winter Classic established a precedent for the 21 NHL outdoor games since, including nine NHL Winter Classic games, eight NHL Stadium Series games, three NHL Heritage Classic matchups and the 2017 NHL Centennial Classic.
The NHL will bring ts traveling ice show to Citi Field in Queens, NY for the 2018 Winter Classic. As always, Craig and his team will have things ready to go as the Sabres take on the Rangers in the 10th edition of the Winter Classic on Jan. 1.
NHL Network will have the Winter Classic covered
NHL Network’s NHL Tonight will provide live on-field coverage before and after the game, featuring interviews and analysis. Hosts Jamison Coyle, E.J. Hradek, Tony Luftman and Jackie Redmond will join with analysts, including 11-year NHL veteran Mike Johnson, 2012 NHL Winter Classic game-tying goal scorer Mike Rupp and former Rangers goalie Kevin Weekes.