Thursday, August 30, 2007
An outdoor game in Buffalo? Can Kelly and McAdoo play, too?
By Terry Frei Special to ESPN.com
Happy New Year!
Start the party now.
Among other things, I'm speaking as a traditionalist who preferred it when college football's premier bowl games -- all four of 'em -- were season-ending New Year's Day staples and that day was the one and only marquee date on the postseason schedule.
Terry Frei wants more outdoor hockey, more cold weather and more toques!
This Jan. 1, NBC is set to have something as fun as when the Granddaddy of Them All, the Rose Bowl, was the showcase of a less crowded postseason schedule.
On Frozen Ralph.
Ice Bowl, the sequel.
Heritage Classic, Redux.
Sidney Crosby and the Penguins vs. Thomas Vanek and the Sabres ... outdoors, in Orchard Park, N.Y.
The only potential problem with the matchup at Ralph Wilson Stadium, which The Buffalo News reports will be officially announced soon, would be if the temperatures in Western New York on the first day of 2008 are more suited for a parade through downtown Pasadena than a skate on a frozen lake. Or, in this case, a skate a few miles off the shores of Lake Erie and about 15 miles from downtown Buffalo.
For what it's worth, the game will be opposite the Gator Bowl on CBS and Capital One Bowl on ABC, and will come just before the Rose Bowl. It will begin 13 hours into 2008, and I'm wondering whether some of those hearty and fervent souls who packed and partied on the plaza outside HSBC Arena before playoff games last spring will have slept a wink in the New Year as they settle into their seats in the stadium.
They can only hope it's as exciting as Buffalo goalie Ryan Miller's previous foray outdoors. He wore eye black to fight glare on a 30-degree day on Oct. 6, 2001, when he was in net for Michigan State as the Spartans scored late and ended up with a 2-2 tie against Michigan in front of 74,554 at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Mich.
I'd say they also might be hoping the temperatures at least are slightly higher than the frigid ones that prevailed during the Canadiens' 4-3 victory over the Oilers as 57,167 watched at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton, Alberta, on Nov. 22, 2003. (Game-time temps reached minus-22 degrees with the wind chill.) I'd say that, except I know Sabres fans are hearty sorts, perhaps even prone to say: "Bring it on." (Plus, "full order," "hot" and "only a jerk would say the Sabres' uniforms are the worst in the NHL!")
I didn't go to that Oilers-Canadiens game. But in talking to Oilers executive Patrick LaForge later, I came away with the impression that as exhilarating as the entire Heritage Classic experience was, it wore out the team staff and everyone held their collective breath until it all actually came off. Though the outdoor-rink technology improves every year and the ice allegedly can be at least decent at temperatures up to 55 degrees, there are so many things that can go wrong on so many levels (including extreme cold). This is a unique extravaganza that needs to be scheduled as an infrequent experience in any market that dares to try it.
I did go to Green Bay's Lambeau Field in February 2006 for the "Frozen Tundra Classic" between the Wisconsin Badgers and Ohio State Buckeyes. There, 32 miles of tubing and 2,200 gallons of antifreeze solution were part of the ice-making process, and Cheeseheads tailgated as only Cheeseheads can tailgate in the parking lot before the game. There, officials placed the rink at one end of the stadium, set up temporary grandstands behind one net, and capacity was about 41,000 (about two-thirds of the figure for Packers games).
It was so much fun, it prompted me and others to muse about the possibility of the NHL giving the outdoor game another try, whether with Maple Leafs-Sabres in Buffalo, Red Wings-Avalanche in either market, or anything else. Except, perhaps, Panthers-Lightning.
This Penguins-Sabres matchup is an appropriate sequel.
Even on a day when sports fans in the U.S. are prone to channel surf and might come across hockey and give it another (or first) look, it will be attention-getting for the NHL. It doesn't have to be disgusting gimmickry, either. This will be the league's showcase young player on the most intriguing team against a franchise that has had similar ups, downs and a bankruptcy.
To warm up the crowd, stage the legends game involving, among others, the French Connection, a Penguins mogul and perhaps even Tom Barrasso, who tended net for both teams. (And can Jim Kelly, Bruce Smith, Thurman Thomas, Bob McAdoo or Ernie DiGregorio skate?)
For those watching on television and paying any attention at all, the enthusiasm in the stands will be infectious and come through the screen. That's good for the game, too. But maybe that's all beside the point for a league that is showing signs of understanding that there's nothing wrong with "niche" status, as long as the niche is passionate and relatively huge in this era of fragmented interest, 789 stations on the cable box and of everything being a niche.
On its own, as a singular event for everyone within driving distance of Orchard Park, the Sabres-Penguins game will be a blast. (And by then, since I sheepishly must confess that the Sabres' uniforms have grown on me, I might even have them in my Top 10.)
Barring logistical disasters, this New Year's Day Ice Bowl will drive home the point that while outdoor games can't be played very often in specific markets, the NHL should have one a season.
Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and the upcoming "'77."