ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. – It's less than an hour before the opening faceoff here Tuesday, and despite moderate wind, complete cloud cover and a light snow falling, it appears the Winter Classic will go on without a hitch, much to the NHL's relief.
The scene reminds me of my first experience with the Buffalo winter weather, which came in early February of 1995. As a beat writer covering the San Jose Sharks for a San Francisco newspaper, I had a free day before the Sharks were set to play the Maple Leafs the following night.
Faster that you could say Patty La-la-la-la-la-LaFontaine we found a rental car company that the mastermind of our adventurous trio could use. Something about going 1-on-1 with a guard rail on the way to Atlantic City and a minor scrape with another car provider in another city had him on the lam. But we digress.
The strange part about the tranquil drive that included a glimpse at Niagara Falls and a seamless crossing of the border was the complete absence of other cars on the road. This was too easy.
Once in downtown Buffalo, we were met with absolutely frigid temperatures – absolutely the coldest I'd been in my life, and that was comparing this place to previous winter stops in Winnipeg, Montreal, Edmonton, and Calgary.
Adding to the bizarre scene was the sight of a large number of fans showing up in beach attire. And what I mean here is women in bikinis and men in bathing suits. Seems in an effort to fill as much of the spacious old Buffalo Memorial Auditorium – more affectionately known as "The Aud" – the team held a promotion offering free tickets to those who showed up wearing next to nothing.
A decent number of those loonies made up the announced crowd of 13,133 on a night the host Sabres beat the third-year Lightning, 2-1.
Fun was had by all and we negotiated our way back to Toronto with unencumbered ease. The next morning we learned why we were virtually the only travelers on the road. A severe winter weather advisory was in affect, and people were urged to stay off the roads for fear of extreme icy and hazardous driving conditions.
I guess when it comes to Buffalo and winter weather, I'm living right.
Update: 1:07 ET – Weather contingencies
Minutes before Tuesday's opening faceoff of the Winter Classic, the NHL released some contingencies for weather.
This could get crazy.
If the game is started, then stopped due to unplayable weather conditions and can not be resumed, it will be deemed an "official" game once 40 minutes have been played. In other words, hockey equates two periods to 4½ innings in Major League Baseball.
The team leading at the time play is discontinued will be declared the winner and awarded the two points in the standings. If the game is tied at the time play is discontinued permanently, or any time after the 40-minute mark, each team will be awarded one point in the standings, with an additional point available in a shootout format.
If weather permits, the shootout will happen here at Ralph Wilson Stadium. But if conditions deteriorate, the shootout will be conducted on Sunday, Feb. 17, prior to the regularly-scheduled Pittsburgh-Buffalo game at HSBC Arena in downtown Buffalo.
If the game is started, but they don't get 40 minutes of play in, the game will be postponed until 7 p.m. ET Wednesday. And if it isn't played on Wednesday, scrap the outside idea. The game will move indoors for a date to be determined later in the season.
Update: 1:42 ET – 1st period observations
The first thing you notice is the puck just sticks in the snow. There's no chance for stretch passes, icings will be almost extinct and forget about stickhandling.
It didn't take Sidney Crosby long to figure this out. You might have noticed he batted the puck twice as he hit the Buffalo blue line during an early-game rush. It wasn't a hot-dog move, which is your first reaction, rather the best way to control the puck while breaking into the zone.
During the TV breaks, too, what you're not seeing is shovels hitting the ice to try and remove some of the snow in front of the nets. At mid-period, the snow is barely falling. This is the best the weather has been since an hour before game-time.
That said, they just brought two Zambonis out to do a quick scrape.
Update: 2:11 ET – 1st intermission
Coaches use intermissions to make adjustments, and 17 minutes between periods might not be enough time today for Buffalo's Lindy Ruff and Pittsburgh's Michel Therrien to get all their points across.
First off, power plays are more important than ever in the new NHL, but they're even more of an advantage during outdoor games. It's almost impossible to clear pucks for penalty killers, especially when trying to flip it out from deep in the defending zone. There's just too much snow on the ice, and it's too hard to stickhandle enough to send pucks out of the zone.
Coaches are going to stress short passes. The snow is making long passes, stretch plays and even those D-to-D passes to set things up impossible.
Lastly, forget one-timers. Buffalo's Ales Kotalik and Jaroslav Spacek each attempted them late in the period. The puck skipped over Kotalik's stick, and Spacek slipped and broke his stick. Both looked silly in the process.
Update: 2:42 ET – 2nd period observations
It's darker here in the second period, and not because nightfall is approaching. The skies are ominous, but the snow if holding off so far. Pittsburgh defenseman Darryl Sydor has removed his visor, however, to provide better visibility if not taking a chance on an eye injury.
The icing at 2:01 into the period was the first of the game. There might not be another.
NBC dedicated most of the intermission talking about the hockey movie classic "Slap Shot." Everyone who is involved in this game has seen it and has a story about it. I'm no different. Lucky enough to play a pick-up game 10 years ago with Jerry Houser, who played Dave "Killer" Carlson, a colleague and I were sitting on either side of the actor in postgame and we broke out a series of the lines we memorized.
We thought it was hilarious, of course. Looking back, I think his reaction suggested he'd heard it all about a million times before. That's OK, at least we didn't poke fun at him playing Marcia's husband in a later-released Brady Bunch movie.
Update: 2:54 ET – A full house
The announced attendance of 71,217 is an NHL record, of course, but it falls short of the biggest crowd to witness an organized hockey game. That occurred in 2001 when 74,554 attended a college game between Michigan State and Michigan at East Lansing, Mich.
One thing about this crowd: They're all in their seats and they are into this event. Scanning the top rows of the stadium, there are no empty seats whatsoever.
There might be a lot of bogus attendance figures announced around the league, but not here, not today.
Update: 3:10 ET – 2nd intermission
Forty minutes complete, it's an official game. Don't be surprised if this one heads to a shootout. It's just too hard to generate any offense. Just ask the Penguins, whose only two shots directed toward Buffalo goalie Ryan Miller drifted wide.
The thing to watch in the third period is a stoppage in play at the 10-minute mark regardless of where the puck is. The teams agreed beforehand to switch the direction in which they skate midway through the 20-minute session, so if there's adverse weather – mainly wind – it's fair to each side. The horn will sound and referees will blow their whistles, so if someone is on a breakaway or there's a scoring chance, it's just tough.
Notice how there hasn't been anything close to a fight? When Pittsburgh enforcer Georges Laraque was asked about dropping the gloves he said he wouldn't do it. He cited the cold weather being the biggest factor, and warned there would be less physical play overall. There were no fights during the Heritage Classic in Edmonton, and Laraque was a member of the Edmonton Oilers in that game, too.
Update: 3:37 ET – 3rd period observations
In order to get in position to talk to the players and coaches afterward, the media is being escorted from the football press box to the locker room areas with five minutes remaining in regulation, regardless of the score or situation. That will put the live updates on hold until our report of the game and event is posted later.
Above all else, the one thing that is safe to say is: This worked. The game is still tied and there's half a period of regulation to play, but there's nothing that can happen now to overshadow the big picture.
The NHL takes a lot of grief for things it does and attempts to do, but anyone who attended this event would be hard-pressed to suggest the Winter Classic has been a bad thing for hockey.