The outdoors are great, but this should not become a regular NHL fixture
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- No matter how much of this snowy, boisterous outdoor affair worked, no matter what great pictures the 2008 Winter Classic made and how much fun the sellout crowd of 71,217 had, the significant warts that appeared throughout the game should give the NHL serious pause before it journeys down this road again.
The question is whether a league that repeatedly has confused "cash grab" with "way of life" can restrain itself long enough to make the right decisions.
Restraint will be a challenge because so much of what happened surrounding Tuesday's outdoor game was exactly what the NHL wanted. From the moment the bagpipers greeted the teams as they walked through the snow and onto the ice for warm-ups, to the moment Sidney Crosby scored in a shootout to give the Pittsburgh Penguins a 2-1 victory over the Buffalo Sabres, there was a certain storybook feel to the proceedings.
The league took the game outdoors for the first time in the United States, and one of the best hockey markets in North America responded by filling Ralph Wilson Stadium to the rafters. Hundreds of obstructed-view seats released late Monday were snapped up in minutes. When Crosby delivered the mythical finish with a shot that seemed to actually disappear into the snow before it reappeared behind Buffalo netminder Ryan Miller, it appeared that virtually all of those fans still were in the building, on their feet, cheering wildly.
NBC, which broadcast the game in the United States, provided dramatic visuals of players whirling through a veil of light snow, flanked by the largest crowd to witness an NHL game live. For the casual fan who happened to pass the game on television and see those kinds of images, it's hard to imagine a better sales pitch for a sport that is perpetually selling itself in much of the United States.
But for all its majesty, the Winter Classic also provided ample evidence that these games are not to be entered into lightly, that there is a case for why they shouldn't be played, or at least for why they shouldn't count in the standings.
Multiple delays to scrape snow build-up with ice-cleaning machines and multiple delays to try to repair significant holes in the ice destroyed any flow the two teams generated, especially in the third period. There also were delays to reaffix the nets to their moorings.
Buffalo defenseman Brian Campbell said players had to push the puck as the game progressed as opposed to passing it and added that it was difficult to remain focused during the delays.
"I know I had some of my bad shifts when we waited and went back out," Campbell said.
Campbell has a patented spin move he employs during games, but he admitted he was fearful of attempting it Tuesday. "I would have killed myself if I'd have tried to spin out there," he said.
Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff noted that horizontal passes often were picked off because the puck had a "rooster tail" as it skidded through the snow that had built up on the ice. Passes meant to be soft, or touch passes, had to be delivered with more force.
By the time the shootout took place, the ice was a mess; players were barely able to see the puck, let alone control it. Ruff said he thought players were going to overskate the puck during the shootout because so much snow had accumulated by the end of regulation and the five-minute overtime.
Miller said he didn't mind the delays and tried to take advantage of the breaks to look at the stands and soak up the atmosphere. Still, he admitted the playing conditions weren't ideal.
"For me, it was a little weird at first," he said. "Pucks were coming out of little snow banks, and they hit a crossbar early where I had no idea [a player] could get it up out of that kind of area."
At one point during the game, Buffalo defenseman Henrik Tallinder appeared to stumble over a hole in the ice. Luckily, he didn't hurt himself, but what if he had? And with all due respect to Tallinder, what if Crosby had fallen in a hole or been blinded by snow and crashed into Georges Laraque or some other inanimate object?
The comments by some players after this game echoed the sentiments of players after the NHL's first regular-season foray into outdoor entertainment, the 2003 Heritage Classic at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton: Thank goodness no one got hurt.
As one NHL official told ESPN.com, by the third period, they were just happy to get it done. They had proved everything they wanted to prove and were happy to move on. The official also suggested that once every other year probably would be an appropriate schedule for such games in the future.
"It's kind of tough with all the delays, because it's not everyone who plays 25 or 30 minutes a game," said Pittsburgh defenseman Kris Letang, who scored one of the Pens' shootout goals. "Like, for a guy who plays on the fourth line, it's kind of tough."
You know, it may not be the best hockey game because of the situation but the atmosphere was incredible. It was incredible. And to hell with the cynics.
-- Sabres coach Lindy Ruff on the Winter Classic
Would he want to play in an outdoor game again?
"Yeah, for sure," he said.
"Ah, maybe a break."
Before the game, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said the experiences in Orchard Park will be factored in before any decision on future efforts is made. But there will be significant pressure to repeat the event on an annual basis.
Sponsors loved the exposure the Winter Classic received. Some 240 press credentials were issued, putting the event on par with the Stanley Cup finals. The Buffalo News reported this week that the local convention and visitors bureau estimated $5 million in direct revenue from the event, so no wonder teams are beating a path to the NHL's door in efforts to land their own outdoor magic shows.
"Based on the response, on our ability to execute and the inquiries we're getting from other clubs for similar activities, this obviously is something we're going to look at doing again," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in a postgame statement.
There are persistent rumors the Montreal Canadiens will host an outdoor game next season as part of their centennial celebrations, although no commitments have been made.
But every time the NHL decides to return to the great outdoors, it will court disaster in its pursuit of magic. Some will argue the risk is worth the reward, and on many fronts, the Winter Classic supported that thinking.
But taking time -- and that means waiting more than just one season -- will be crucial for learning from the failings of this experience. Had the weather scuttled Tuesday's game, the contingency plans alone give some insight into the minefield these games represent.
Had the game been deemed unplayable after 40 minutes, it would have been "official" with a winner declared, unless the game was tied. In that case, each team would have been given a point and there would have been a shootout, unless they couldn't do the shootout, in which case, the shootout would have been held Feb. 17 before the next regularly scheduled game between the two teams. If the game had been canceled before the end of the second period, it would have been played in its entirety the next night. If that didn't work, the league would have rescheduled the game for later in the season.
What a nightmare.
Beyond that, hosting a game like this every season (or, heaven forbid, two in one season) ensures the kind of magic that surrounded much of the Winter Classic soon would dissipate. "Oh, is it time for another outside game? Already? Ho hum."
Part of the buzz surrounding this game came from the fact it was three years removed from the NHL's initial foray into outdoor regular-season games.
Not everyone buys that, though.
Ruff was told there is a vein of cynicism that runs through some quarters of the hockey community regarding these kinds of games.
"I think it was good for the game," he said. "You know, it may not be the best hockey game because of the situation, because of the weather, because of the snow, but the atmosphere was incredible. It was incredible."
Then he paused.
"And to hell with the cynics."
Well, there is that.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.
THE WINTER CLASSIC
The NHL hosted the first regular-season outdoor game in the United States on Jan. 1, 2008 as the Penguins and Sabres squared off at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo, N.Y.
GAME DAY• Recap: Crosby's SO winner caps magic day
• Burnside: This should not be regular NHL event
• Burnside: Grading the Winter Classic
• ZOOM: Photos from Ralph Wilson Stadium
• In-game blog
• Outdoor game brings out tailgaters
• Winter Classic highlights
NEWS• Winter Classic draws big TV numbers
• Slight rule changes for outdoor game
ANALYSIS• Burnside: Players embrace outdoors atmosphere
• Faceoff: Gimmick or celebration of heritage?
• Burnside: The man behind the outdoor magic
• Burnside: This time, more at risk for NHL
WATCH• Hradek: A preview of The Winter Classic
• Melrose: Why Winter Classic is a good thing