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Monday, December 31, 2007
This time around outdoors, there's more at risk for NHL

By Scott Burnside
ESPN.com

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- As reporters got their first glimpse Sunday of the newly planted ice rink inside Ralph Wilson Stadium, they asked NHL ice guru Dan Craig and Don Renzulli, the NHL's senior vice president of events and entertainment, if there was a chance to relax a bit now that everything seemed on target for Tuesday.

"You want me to answer that?" Craig said. "There's no relaxing for the next 48 hours. None. Zero."

The same might be said for the entire league as it waits to see what will unfold in the coming hours heading into Tuesday's Winter Classic between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Buffalo Sabres, the first outdoor NHL regular-season game to be held in the United States.

Back in November 2003, when the NHL first held an outdoor regular-season game in Edmonton, the temperature plummeted as the evening game time approached, prompting some discussion about whether the game between the Canadiens and Oilers should have been played at all.

Players were so cold, some wore toques (then-Montreal netminder Jose Theodore being the most notable of the toque crowd). Trainers had hot soup and tea on the bench and players changed their long underwear between periods.

Montreal captain Saku Koivu recalled broiling on the bench (thanks to heaters installed behind the players), but then feeling frozen the instant he went over the boards, his eyes tearing up at the instant change in temperature. The coldness produced fogging visors that couldn't be rectified. Equipment that absorbed pucks and hits under normal conditions became brittle and unyielding in the cold.

Is that too much to ask for players to occasionally endure to produce the kind of spectacle that the Heritage Classic became and Tuesday's game aspires to be?

"Afterward, I only have great memories. But at the same time, I'm not sure I would want to do it again," Koivu told ESPN.com this week. "I think the experience was great, but it wasn't really an actual game. Thank goodness nobody got hurt in the game."

And that's what confronts the NHL in Round 2 of the outdoor extravaganza -- creating the carnival without seeing it devolve into a circus.

Coldness isn't likely to be an issue in Buffalo as it was in Edmonton, but there are other challenges and potential pitfalls.

The game is in the afternoon (1 p.m. ET pregame with puck drop at about 1:18), so the sun could be an issue with glare. Snow and/or rain could affect playing conditions. NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said on-ice officials will confer with league and players' association officials (new executive director Paul Kelly will be on site) during the game to determine if unscheduled stoppages in play need to be called to remove snow or excess water.

The NHL already has altered some of its procedures to ensure no team is unduly affected by the elements. Teams will switch ends at the midpoint of the third period to ensure no team has to play more against the wind. Overtime will likewise be split. If the game goes to a shootout, the goalies will have the choice of which end they will defend, so both netminders could share the same net.

Beyond that, the NHL has pulled out all the stops in ensuring the game gets maximum exposure.

NBC will broadcast the game and veteran broadcaster Bob Costas will host the show. The NHL also will stream live programming for the first time, including a pregame show from Ralph Wilson Stadium. The Sports Business Journal estimated that sales of Winter Classic gear could top $1 million at the game. Even The Weather Channel referred to the game this weekend when it was doing its national weather forecast and will broadcast live from the stadium Tuesday at 11 a.m.

The lead-up to the game suggests the stakes at play here for the league.

When the Heritage Classic was held in Edmonton, it was a gimmie. No American channel aired the game in the U.S.; so, even if it had been a flop, the public relations damage would have been minimal. The game was a huge hit in Canada and is considered a memorable moment for the sport and league, even if the game itself wasn't the stuff of legend.

This time around, though, the NHL will be trying to put its best face on a national stage against the possibility of chaos that is simply beyond human control.

At its best, with Sidney Crosby and Thomas Vanek and Maxim Afinogenov and Evgeni Malkin streaking down the ice with their breath hanging in the air and the noise of 73,000 fans rising into the winter skies, it should be breathtaking.

At its best, the game will pay homage to every kid who ever slid onto a frozen pond, prairie slough or backyard rink and imagined playing in the NHL.

At its best, the game will disprove the long-held notion that the NHL is run by closed-minded traditionalists who can't think outside the box and pave the way for more such events down the road.

"Well, it would be nice, certainly [if the game came off without a hitch]," Daly said. "Whenever you undertake an initiative like this, you do so knowing that there are variables that you can't control.

"Weather is always a big variable that you can't predict with any certainty, and at least 48 hours away, it looks like the weather is going to cooperate," Daly added. "So, we're hoping that things continue to go as well as we could have expected and hoped. I think people are pretty interested in the game, in the event, and that's good for hockey."

At its worst, if it pours rain, if there is a blizzard, if a player gets injured as a result of playing the game outdoors instead of down the road at HSBC Arena, then it will be the kind of black eye that will reinforce the widely held notion the NHL isn't quite "big league."

At its worst, the Winter Classic will make it difficult, if not impossible, to justify hosting such an event ever again.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.