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Monday, December 31, 2007
Outdoor air brings 'kid' out of Sabres, Penguins

By Scott Burnside
ESPN.com

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- As the Buffalo Sabres whirled around the new ice at Ralph Wilson Stadium on Friday, coach Lindy Ruff looked up, saw the snow wafting through the air and the smiles on his players' faces, and decided to chuck the remaining drills he'd had planned.

"Halfway through practice, I looked at our practice sheet and I said, 'We got to get rid of our last couple of drills and just let them scrimmage, get back to playing a little pond hockey for 10 minutes,'" Ruff said.

"Let them enjoy it," Ruff added. "Don't worry about the structure of the practice and somebody gives the puck away, let's just let them play. It felt like the right thing to do. They were having a great time with it."

Buffalo Sabres
Instead of taking part in the usual practice drills, the Sabres played a scrimmage during their first and only practice Monday inside Ralph Wilson Stadium.

Hockey players are creatures are habit.

Many are obsessive about the rituals they follow in preparing for games. Routes to the rink, dressing room habits, even the manner in which they dress for games.

But when you're about to play outdoors on a sheet of ice plunked in the middle of an NFL stadium in front of 73,000 fans, all of those routines are thrown out the window.

Yet, when the Sabres and their opponents, the Pittsburgh Penguins, exited the ice Monday after their one and only outdoor practice before Tuesday afternoon's Winter Classic, there was a palpable sense of excitement that ran through both dressing rooms.

"Yes, we are, as players, creatures of habit," Ruff said. "But to get out of the routine for a game like this, I'm just telling you, it was just so cool to be out there. I thought it was unbelievable and I'm not even playing.

"For them, I think it's the thrill of a lifetime to play a game like this. You really felt like you could have stayed out there a couple of hours, one of those [situations] where you scrimmage all day long. You could see it in the players' faces. You guys even looked cheerful out there," Ruff told reporters.

Tuesday's forecast calls for some snow, which might create some unscheduled game delays to scrape the ice, but nothing more serious than that. If the weather holds and the NHL's second regular-season outdoor game goes off as planned, it will undoubtedly spawn.

But in discussing these events, the players' willingness to take part is often underplayed. The bottom line is that games like the 2003 Heritage Classic and Winter Classic will only succeed as long as players are prepared to forgo the comfort of their normal routines and embrace the concept, not just buy into it.

That's exactly what happened during Monday's practice sessions.

Whether they grew up in Rokycany in the Czech Republic or Moscow or Anchorage, Alaska, or Cole Harbor, Nova Scotia, players found themselves stepping onto the ice and traveling back in time to their own experiences as young men playing the game.

That undeniable link between those memories and this moment are not just dreamt up by some ad executive, but are at the heart of the grins the players carried off the ice Monday.

"We've all played outside at some point and had a great time doing it," Pittsburgh star Sidney Crosby said. "I think it brings you back a bit when you're out there. You know, someone said it before, it is a big stage. You know, it's a big game. It's a regular-season game. But, at the same time, you don't get this chance very often, so you want to enjoy it."

Teammate Jordan Staal is one of three Staal brothers now playing in the NHL. Growing up in the Northern Ontario community of Thunder Bay, the Staals spent many hours on the homemade rink their father built on the family's sod farm.

"Played a lot of hockey out there with my brothers and stuff like that in minus-40 temps and the wind chill making it minus-50. It's pretty crazy," Staal said. "But we just enjoyed the game so much and it's kind of that same feeling out there today."

Erik Christensen grew up half a country away in Edmonton, Alberta, yet his memories chart a similar course. Christensen's birthday is Dec. 17, and that was usually around the time the backyard rink went in.

"And Christmas morning, just waking up and opening presents, and then going out skating, to me that was my winters as a kid," said Christensen as he pulled off his gear in the visitors' dressing room. "Same sort of feeling [today]. It's kind of neat to be outside skating."

You know, it's a big game. It's a regular-season game. But, at the same time, you don't get this chance very often, so you want to enjoy it.

--Sidney Crosby

Sabres defenseman Nathan Paetsch, a native of LeRoy, Saskatchewan, recalls standing in his backyard with the hose, watering a homemade rink with makeshift boards made out of railway ties.

"And just being out there all night waiting until it would finally freeze over," he said. "Definitely the first time I got to skate on my long, hard-work outdoor rink is probably my best memory."

Walking down the long, inclined walkway from the dressing rooms, across the black rubber matting to the rink, Paetsch got a similar thrill.

"It was kind of cool," he said. "I think it's going to be really cool [Tuesday] when the stands are full, you're walking down, you've kind of got a steep walk down, you get to see everything coming in with a packed house. [It's] going to be quite an awesome thing."

It is apropos, perhaps, that the NHL has built a small pad of ice next to the main rink where youngsters can skate before the game and between periods. It's a link between the dreams of youth and the reality of dreams realized for the players on both teams.

Remember James Earl Jones' "People will come" speech at the end of "Field of Dreams?" The NHL has discovered that if it continues to build hockey's own field of dreams, the players will most definitely come.

And there's something reassuring about that.

Sidney Crosby
Sidney Crosby took time for autographs before the Penguins' practice Monday at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
More from The Winter Classic

• What about the refs?: Much has been said and written about how players will be battling the elements, but what about on-ice officials?

While players will have the luxury of retreating to their heated benches, referees and linesmen will be on the ice exposed to whatever elements will be at play for the entire game.

Dave Smith, who is in charge of medical and health issues for the NHL's officials, said his charges will change their winter undergarments between periods (as will the players) and he will suggest they wear toques under their helmets to help guard against too much heat loss.

During the 2003 Heritage Classic in Edmonton, one referee had minor frostbite. The temperatures aren't expected to be that severe in Buffalo, but keeping warm will be an issue. Officials are supposed to take up pre-set positions during timeouts between the players' benches, but Smith is wondering if they might want to dart into the heated penalty boxes.

One other element of the officials' challenges will be points of reference on the ice. Under normal circumstances in NHL arenas, fans are close to the ice surface and a roof gives a close feel to the proceedings. At Ralph Wilson Stadium, fans are yards away from the surface and there is open sky above. It will be hard to maintain a point of reference, Smith said, so officials will have to work extra hard on their focus to make sure they don't get out of position.

Veteran referee Don Van Massenhoven and Marc Joannette will call the game, while Tim Nowak and Brad Kovachik call the lines.

• What happens in Vegas ... : Most folks refer to the 2003 Heritage Classic or the 2001 Michigan-Michigan State collegiate battle as the benchmarks for these types of outdoor hockey events. But the NHL also went outdoors in the most unlikely of places -- Las Vegas. The exhibition game between the New York Rangers and the Wayne Gretzky-led Los Angeles Kings took place in September 1991.

It is also notable for one of the great lines in hockey delivered by then-Rangers enforcer Tie Domi, who claimed he was thwarted on a breakaway by a grasshopper as the area around the rink at Caesars Palace was rife with the bugs. "It became known as 'The Grasshopper Game,'" recalled John Vanbiesbrouck, who was in goal that night for the Rangers and is now a broadcast analyst. "We lost 5-2. [Former Kings goalie] Kelly Hrudey keeps reminding me of that all the time."

• The Great Outdoors, Part II: Pittsburgh's Ty Conklin is looking to even his outdoor record as he starts in his second straight NHL regular-season outdoor game.

After taking the loss for the Edmonton Oilers in the 2003 Heritage Classic, where the Montreal Canadiens scored a late goal to win 4-3, Conklin's career has followed a circuitous route.

Pressed into service late in Game 1 of the 2006 Stanley Cup finals, Conklin's puck-handling gaff allowed Carolina's Rod Brind'Amour to score the winning goal and the Hurricanes went on to win their first Stanley Cup in seven games. Conklin did not play again for the Oilers and then bounced from Columbus to Buffalo with a couple of stops in the AHL thrown in for good measure. Conklin began this season with the Pens' farm team in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton before being recalled when Marc-Andre Fleury went down with injury.

Now, he's back, at least temporarily, in a starting NHL role, a role which will include, improbably, his second appearance in an outdoor game. Go figure.

"Yeah, it's strange how things work sometimes, but it's pretty neat," Conklin said Monday. "As long as it's not as cold [as Edmonton], I'll pinch myself, I guess. Hopefully, things turn out a little bit better than they did in Edmonton."

Teammate Georges Laraque, also a former Oiler, is the only other player to participate on both regular-season outdoor games.

• Roberts still makes Classic trip: Before Christmas, Penguins veteran forward Gary Roberts joked with Associated Press hockey writer Ira Podell that he was thinking of ways to avoid playing in The Winter Classic given his age (he is 41). On Saturday night against these same Sabres, Roberts broke his leg. Still, he was on hand at Ralph Wilson Stadium on Monday, riding in a golf cart up from the stadium floor.

Pens coach Michel Therrien was asked if he's worried about the team's preponderance of youth now that Roberts is out and Mark Recchi is in Atlanta.

"Well, people were saying we were young last year. This team grew up quick," Therrien said. "I think that's the best way to grow together. We've got to compensate because we don't have much experience on the ice. But we've got to compensate with our passion, with the energy. From a coaching standpoint, it's fun. They want to learn."

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.