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2008 NHL Winter Classic

On paper, the idea of a Jan. 1, 2008 “winter classic” may not have seemed like a great idea. New Year’s Day, as always, had a full slate of high-profile college football bowl games. Playing an outdoor game in upstate New York was a novel concept for the NHL — and risky, considering the potential for really bad weather in that part of the country. And even though bad weather became a reality, the first Winter Classic was a roaring success, and it set the stage for what has become an annual NHL event right up there with the NHL All-Star game in popularity.

The Buffalo Sabres, Winter Classic Hosts

Time to set the stage for the Buffalo Winter Classic.

Venue: Ralph Wilson Stadium (now called New Era Field), Orchard Park, New York, home field for the NFL’s Buffalo Bills. Football seating capacity was just under 72,000. This would be the first outdoor NHL game ever played in the U.S.

The players: The home team Buffalo Sabres versus the visiting Pittsburgh Penguins. The 2007-08 Pens wound up with a 102-point season, with a roster studded with superstars that included captain Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal. The Sabres were no slouches that year, either, finishing with 90 points and just missing the Stanley Cup playoffs. Ryan Miller, the team’s outstanding goalie, would be challenged by the Pens offense — and the weather

The weather: A big part of the story in the Sabres-Penguins Winter Classic was the weather: temperatures in the low 30s plus snow, with a good deal of it falling in the first period. After slowing to flurries in the second period, the snow picked up again in the third, along with the wind, and kept the maintenance crew busy repairing the ice and the players busy picking their way through a flooded rink with limited visibility. Of course, this is what hockey is all about, and the fans loved it — so much so that the game has gone down in history as the “Ice Bowl.”

The fans: Ralph Wilson Stadium was packed to capacity: 71,217 hockey fans braved the weather (not that tough a job, actually, for the hardy citizens of Buffalo) and were entertained from start to finish. Some no doubt were recalling their days playing pond hockey in similar weather conditions or worse. Adding to the sense of nostalgia, both teams wore special throwback sweaters: the Sabres in their 20-year-old white colors, and the Pens in powdered blue from the 1970s. As a side note, Sports Illustrated ranks these Pens and Sabres Winter Classic jerseys No. 1 and No. 7 all-time for this event. At the time, it was the biggest crowd ever for an NHL game. And despite the college football competition, the game, televised on NBC, drew an amazing 3.75 million viewers, the biggest TV audience for a regular-season NHL game since 1975.

The Penguins-Sabres Winter Classic Game

Fans in attendance and watching on TV were treated to a great inaugural game. Colby Armstrong scored for the Pens 21 seconds into the first period, and Buffalo’s Brian Campbell scored in the second to tie it up 1-1. That’s the way it stayed through the third period and overtime, taking the game to a shootout. Ales Kotalik scored for Buffalo, but shortly thereafter Kris Letang scored for the Pens. After a save by Ty Conklin on Buffalo’s Maxim Afinogenov, Penguins captain Crosby (who else?) scored, giving the Pens a 2-1 victory. Miller, Buffalo’s goalie, ended up with 24 saves and a .960 save percentage. Conklin was even better, with 36 saves and a .973 save percentage.

The 2008 NHL Winter Classic had hockey fans excited throughout North America. In the years to come, the game would get even more attention, but it all got started with this unforgettable Ice Bowl.