It’s not every day that there’s a hockey game outdoors. True, it happens once a year now, but when they planned the Winter Classic at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo, NY for New Year’s Day 2008, it was still a fairly new concept. After all, there had only been one such game of its kind in years prior, and there was a five-year gap between the two. The 2003 Heritage Classic was not only modeled after the “Cold War” outdoor game between the University of Michigan and Michigan State in 2001, but it was also held in late November as opposed to dead-of-winter January.
So this was a chance for the NHL to refine its operation in this aspect, and it was exciting for the league’s entire fan base, as well. After five years of waiting, which included two Olympic breaks and one lockout, the fans were excited to see the experience. For many of us, it was a repeat performance, but just as exciting since it contained two American teams. The rest never saw the first game, and had no expectations going into the second. I was one of these people, and I couldn’t wait. My dad and I had it all figured out: My family would be hosting New Year’s Day dinner, and the game would start right after dinner, if all went as planned.
Then the plan got thrown horribly off course. On Christmas Day 2007, I received a few seemingly random presents: some Pittsburgh Penguins winter hats, a toiletry bag and a new pair of boots. My last present, by my dad’s request, was a square box just big enough to fit a video game case. Inside that box, contrary to what my dad had told me a month or so earlier, was a ticket to said Winter Classic in Buffalo. I, like any normal middle-school kid would, proceeded to freak out and dance around the room in my pajamas. (Don’t believe me? I have video evidence upon request.)
So New Year’s Eve comes, and my dad and I make the two and a half hour trek to Canadohta Lake, Pa., roughly halfway between Buffalo and Pittsburgh, to spend the night. We traveled the other two hours the next morning, and arrived at the stadium about two hours for the scheduled start time of 1 p.m. The temperature was probably below freezing, and most everyone there was bundled in three or more layers. I had my three Penguins hats at the ready – one for each period. It was going to be great, especially once the Penguins scored 21 seconds into the game.
From there on, everything is pretty much a blur. They scored to tie the game in the second period, I know that. I remember that being the first time I had ever heard a goal horn live that wasn’t ours. And then, overtime. By then, I couldn’t feel my toes and was completely covered head to toe in snow, as was everyone else in the arena. Overtime didn’t solve anything, so we went to the (still fairly new) NHL rules shootout. This was where I perked back up, because I LOVE shootouts. I have always enjoyed watching them, especially live. This was practically double the excitement.
Long story short, the Penguins won the shootout and consequently the game. My dad and I drove straight home, and I was so excited and amped from the game that I proceeded to have trouble staying asleep throughout the week. However, it was by far the best sporting experience of my life – so far, anyway.