Frozen in time

TERRY JONES

, Last Updated: 7:18 AM ET

BUFFALO -- It was my lead paragraph the morning after the Heritage Classic at Commonwealth Stadium.

"They'll do this again. Somewhere else. Some other season. Some other teams. But it'll never be like this anywhere, ever again."

It was followed by this quote from Wayne Gretzky: "It's like the 1972 series. I don't know that you can ever duplicate this. I can't describe how magical it was. I don't know that it could ever be special enough to be able to match this one."

Well, here we are. Now we find out.

They're doing it again. This time it's called the NHL Winter Classic. In Orchard Park, N.Y.. New Year's Day 2008. The Buffalo Sabres versus the Pittsburgh Penguins.

It was Nov. 22, 2003 when the Edmonton Oilers proved that if you build it they will come, freeze for six hours and leave the the event they subtitled 'Hockey In The Heartland' with the warmest, fuzziest memories imaginable.

Will it work again?

Larry Brooks of the New York Post followed the Edmonton placeline with this lead: "Romance does not suffer from frostbite." He carried on to describe "an idyllic hockey setting" and a "beautiful, sunny winter wonderland of an afternoon."

Boston Globe writer Kevin Paul Dupont described "streams of teeth-chattering fans, numbed to their puck-loving souls" and suggested "it could be better only if they ditched the regulation nets and plunked down your brother Joey's frozen rubber boots for goal posts."

It was undeniably one of Edmonton's greatest moments as a sports city and 57,167 who were in Commonwealth Stadium will always be able to treasure the knowledge that they were not merely witnesses to sports history but participants in creating the remember-forever day when Canadians sat in -16.8 C temperatures dropping to -28 with the wind chill to celebrate the game that makes our blood boil.

"There's no other place in the world you could do this,'' said former Oilers GM Glen Sather when it was over. "I'll cherish this for the rest of my life. Edmontonians are the best hockey fans in the world, as far as I'm concerned, and always have been."

For me, the ultimate freeze frame was watching retired Montreal Canadiens and Edmonton Oilers, plus a still-playing-in-the-NHL Mark Messier - players with a combined total of 166 Stanley Cup rings - scraping the ice between halves of the Mega-Stars oldtimers game.

There will be no MegaStars game, as such, here. The one in Edmonton upstaged the NHL contest that followed.

Here it'll be all about the NHL game, but when the puck is dropped, Edmonton's record crowd of 57,167 will be eclipsed by about 15,000 at Ralph Wilson Stadium.

With the stadium 90 minutes south of Toronto and three hours north of Pittsburgh, the 41,000 tickets the Sabres put on sale after taking out 33,000 for their season ticket holders, were gone in an hour.

On a day when Americans watch a never-ending run of college football bowl games, there's a three-hour window where we'll find out how many will watch the first outdoor NHL game in the U.S. featuring Sidney Crosby.

Unlike the Heritage Classic, which the Oilers produced almost exclusively, the league took the lead for this one.

In the beginning it was going to be called 'The Ice Bowl' to fit in with the college football schedule.

Pittsburgh agreed to be the visiting team before the NHL settled on the home team, eventually choosing Buffalo and a game in the home stadium of the NFL Buffalo Bills over Detroit and a game at Comerica Park, home of baseball's Detroit Tigers.

In many ways this is as much about promoting the start of the NHL schedule on NBC this season than it is a celebration of playing hockey outdoors.

NBC is going big time with it, including bringing in iconic host Bob Costas to spend his New Year's Eve in Buffalo.

"It will feel special because it is special. It's unique," Costas said in a media conference call last week.

"I was asked and I immediately said yes. 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.

"Sidney Crosby is a guy who crosses over into the general awareness of sports fans who might not follow the NHL day-to-day. 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."

It certainly was the first time.


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