Fighting heavy wind and blowing snow, NHL work crews completed the initial phase of converting Ralph Wilson Stadium into a hockey rink for next week's Winter Classic outdoor game.

"The process of building the ice has begun," NHL spokesman Jamey Horan said Monday.

Crews spent 24 hours surveying and protecting the field, unloading equipment and establishing refrigeration lines in preparation for the Buffalo Sabres' game against the Pittsburgh Penguins on New Year's Day.

The game will be the NHL's second played outdoors, and first in the United States; the Oilers played the Montreal Canadiens at Edmonton's Commonwealth Stadium on Nov. 22, 2003.

The field's conversion began within hours of the final whistle of the Buffalo Bills' home finale, a 38-21 loss to the New York Giants on Sunday.

Crews began by removing the goal posts, and laying large tarps, held down by wooden boards, to protect the field. The initial work was completed despite wind gusts of over 30 mph and a steady and sometimes blinding snowfall.

The wind posed a near-dangerous problem on Sunday night.

With workers standing nearby, a heavy gust picked up one of the tarps - 30 yards long and covering the width of the football field - and lifted it into the stands of the east end zone. Several workers managed to duck beneath the tarp in time, and no one was injured.

Horan said the next step is leveling the field, which is crowned, to begin erecting the temporary rink.

Organizers hope to have the rink built by today and begin making the ice tomorrow. The two teams are scheduled to practice at the stadium Monday afternoon.

The 42,000 tickets made available to fans were scooped up within half an hour of going on sale in September. In the event of bad weather, the NHL has the option of postponing the game to Jan. 2.

Noteworthy

* San Jose Sharks forward Ryane Clowe, who has not played in 2 months after undergoing knee surgery, was arrested early Monday morning on suspicion of drunken driving.

Clowe was stopped by police in suburban Los Gatos for a minor traffic violation. Authorities said the 25-year-old player failed a field sobriety test and was booked into the Santa Clara County jail.

"I am embarrassed by what happened, but take full responsibility for this regrettable mistake," Clowe said. *