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Fans enjoy tailgating before first U.S. outdoor NHL game

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Pigskins and now pucks. Rain, shine or
snow. If there's a game at Ralph Wilson Stadium, you can count on
Ken Johnson holding a cookout on the hood of his 1980 red Pinto
wagon out in the parking lot.

"I've got burgers, that's Philly cheesesteak, and I've got
chicken wings boiling in the army helmet," Johnson said Tuesday
morning, proudly showing off his tailgating area in Lot 1 near Pole
5 prior to the Pittsburgh Penguins' 2-1 win over the Buffalo Sabres
in the NHL Winter Classic outdoor game.

If anyone's in the mood for pizza, he's got that cooking in the
top shelf of an office filing cabinet. And there's a bar set up for
those interested in having a shot of Polish cherry liqueur poured
out of the thumbhole of a bowling ball.

"I call it my 16-pound shot glass," Johnson said. "It
actually tastes like crap. I don't know why people drink it. But I
go through 12-14 bottles of this a game."

Johnson's been doing this since 1989, a stretch in which he
hasn't missed a Buffalo Bills home game. And there was no way the
Sabres and Bills season ticket-holder was going to pass up an
opportunity to provide the free spread -- it costs the computer
software engineer about $4,000 a year -- for the NHL's first outdoor
game in the United States.

And this wasn't Johnson's first Sabres tailgate. The Rochester
native held a smaller version in a parking lot outside of Buffalo's
HSBC Arena in 1999 when the Sabres hosted Dallas in the Stanley Cup
finals.

"This is Buffalo," crowed Dan Barrett, of nearby Fort Erie,
Ontario, while making his way through the parking lot as a light
snow fell.

"Pass 'em around boys," someone was overheard saying, while
distributing a handful of Jell-O shots.

There were tents and tuques (winter hats, as they're known in
Canada), grills, gloves and Christmas cookies. There were Sabres
flags flying from cars and vans. One group of fans gathered in a
converted school bus and watched TV while being warmed by a propane
heater.

Rather than Jim Kelly and Thurman Thomas jerseys, fans wore
those of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Ryan Miller and
Thomas Vanek.

Fans dressed in layers, began filtering into the 74,000-seat
stadium once gates opened at 11 a.m., had it packed well before the
opening faceoff, and sang along as the pregame band played the Neil
Diamond classic, "Sweet Caroline."

And a very big cheer went up as both teams, led out by a
bagpiper, came out of the end-zone tunnel and made their way to the
rink for the pregame skate.

The crowd, announced at 71,217, stayed until the end, and
included several young men who went shirtless for most of the game.
Fans in the lower bowl stood throughout, and the cheers were most
loud when the game went to a shootout.

"This is awesome!" said Michelle Adams as she settled into her
seat in section 330, some 15 rows from the top of the top of the
stadium. "This is so cool!"

Actually, it was relatively mild for Buffalo with temperatures
at about 30 and, more important, little wind coming off nearby Lake
Erie.

"They couldn't have picked a better town to have it in," added
Elizabeth Brooks, who came prepared, with 18 pairs of hand-warmers
stuffed into the pockets of her winter coat.

Not that she needed them.

"We know cold," Brooks said. "This isn't cold."

Penguins fans were enjoying themselves, too.

"I wouldn't miss it for anything," said Alex Greif, who made
the three-hour drive from Pittsburgh earlier in the day.

Greif and his brother Karl purchased their tickets on e-Bay
about two months ago. They spent $170 each on tickets that had a
face value of $29, and sat eight rows from the top.

The view turned out to be very good, because they had a clear
look at the entire ice sheet below. Fans sitting in the lower bowl
had their sight lines partially obstructed by the boards.

"Everybody told us we wouldn't be able to see because we were
so high, but I think it's wonderful," Alex Grief said.

Not that anything -- the view or their ticket price -- mattered.

"I couldn't care less," Alex Greif said about how much they
paid for tickets. "It was worth it."