Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

On the NHL | Costas and crew eager to air U.S. outdoor game

Not many people care to travel to Buffalo during the winter. Even fewer care to be sitting outside in the cold in January, other than Bills fans.

Not many people care to travel to Buffalo during the winter. Even fewer care to be sitting outside in the cold in January, other than Bills fans.

Of course, Bills fans don't have to worry because there won't be any playoff games in Buffalo this year.

But there will be 70,000 fans sitting in Ralph Wilson Stadium on New Year's Day as outdoor hockey makes its historic U.S. debut with the Sabres hosting the Pittsburgh Penguins in a game that counts in the standings.

NBC will telecast the game with Bob Costas leading a broadcast team that includes Mike Emrick, Eddie Olczyk, Mike Milbury and Darren Pang.

"I was asked, and I immediately said yes," Costas said. "It took me about five seconds to say yes, because it's within what I look at as my role at NBC.

"I think people are comfortable with the idea that if there is a big event on NBC, that I might be the one to come on and set the stage. And it implicitly says that NBC considers this to be something of significance, that it's not your everyday hockey game. And it isn't. They didn't have to twist my arm. I think it's cool."

Emrick said it would be a "fascinating" experience.

"We're combining something that's very normal with the unusual, and then throwing in the weather as uncertainty. And that's why this is going to be so much fun," he said. Unless there's a blizzard, which is always possible in Buffalo.

NBC can introduce Sidney Crosby to millions of non-hockey fans who might tune in out of curiosity.

"Crosby is a guy who crosses over into the general awareness of sports fans who might not follow the NHL day to day," Costas said. "You have players that people want to see and an atmosphere that's intriguing. Plus, 70,000 people in Buffalo on New Year's Day - there's certainly going to be a rollicking atmosphere there. You aren't going to need to know the standings from top to bottom to enjoy this game. It's an event."

As soon as the Bills' last home game ended, crews began working on the field, taking down the goalposts and laying large tarps, weighted down by boards to protect the field. Because of wind gusts of more than 40 m.p.h., crews had to get SUVs and heavy equipment to add onto the tarps. Among the challenges were making the field level - NFL football fields are crowned.

Outdoor hockey: It's going to be a first, but not for some.

"Back home in Saskatoon, we were lucky enough to have outdoor rinks," Penguins forward Colby Armstrong said. "I got to play outside a lot as a kid, at the park down the street from me, playing outside until the lights kicked us off the ice."

Georges Laraque played in the NHL's first outdoor game as a member of the Edmonton Oilers in the 2003 Heritage Classic against the Montreal Canadiens.

"We all had to wear toques under our helmets, it was that cold," the Penguins enforcer recalled. "It was a game where you would rather be sitting on the bench than playing, because we had heaters at our bench.

"It was the only game I've ever been in when guys didn't mind being benchwarmers. And no one was complaining about a lack of ice time."

The first outdoor game, at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton, drew 57,167. Tickets to this Jan. 1 game sold out within hours.

Sabres center Tim Connolly grew up in Syracuse, N.Y., and is no stranger to outdoor hockey.

"My dad built me a rink in my backyard," he said. "He got up early in the morning to make sure it was frozen and put the work in for me, and I was able to go out and play outside. I've always enjoyed skating outside. . . . The weather could be a factor. There's no telling what could happen in Buffalo. There could be two feet of snow or it could be 55 degrees."

Dan Craig, the NHL's ice guru, has been in Buffalo since Thursday. His crews - up to 20 employees - will have logged more than 1,000 man-hours by the time the event is finished. And it still could snow or sleet on game day.

"You work through what you need to work through," Craig told "If it's snowing, you put on your hat and gloves and you just keep on going. At the end of the day, what is asked of us is to make things work."

Among the risks: brittle ice. As part of the Heritage Classic in 2003, the NHL also played a second game between Canadiens and Oilers alumni in which that was a factor.

"The only thing I found difficult was the ice," former Oiler Glenn Anderson said. "It got so cold that the ice was really chippy, and it was really difficult. You were, like, skating on a lake that hadn't been Zamboni-ed in three weeks."


Ottawa goalie Martin Gerber, after leaving the game Wednesday in Buffalo following a slapshot off his face mask from Tim Connolly: "It shook whatever's left of my brain cells."

Quotable II

New York Rangers forward Sean Avery had this to say to reporters last week about playing in Toronto: "No, I never enjoy going to Toronto, really. . . . Why? Let's see. . . . Because I don't enjoy hockey-obsessed Canadians. The [U.S. dollar] exchange is not very good right now. And it's going to cost me a lot of money in tickets for people I don't even like. How's that for an answer? Would you like me to go on? Nah, I think that's probably enough."