Hockey trick has NBC doffing its hat

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- As gimmicks go -- and make no mistake this was a gimmick of monumental proportions -- the National Hockey League's first Winter Classic was a raging success.

As television shows go -- and this was primarily a show for television -- the Winter Classic was probably a boffo smash, although the ratings will decide that. But with Sidney Crosby scoring the winning goal on the final shot of a shootout, well, NBC could not have asked for more.

As hockey games go, this contest between the Penguins and the Buffalo Sabres was a bit of a snoozer, but placed in this setting -- in front of 71,217 outdoors at Ralph Wilson Stadium -- it was memorable. Had this 2-1 Penguins' victory occurred at Mellon Arena, it would have been eminently forgettable.

But it wasn't, and because it wasn't, the NHL is basking in the wisdom of its gimmicky decision.

There's nothing wrong with gimmicks. The NHL is not a gimmick league. It's far from it. It's a bit stodgy, and definitely not gimmicky. But when the vast majority of the sporting public isn't tuning in, gimmicks are right and proper. The NHL needs all the national television exposure it can get. So when NBC is willing to put your game on, and when the country is enjoying a holiday and mostly sitting in front of its television sets, it was the perfect time for this outdoor game.

NBC brought in its No. 1 guy, Bob Costas, as host of the show, and his presence lent a star quality to the presentation. If Costas is involved, quite simply, it's big time -- even if it's not. The NBC announcing crew of Mike "Doc" Emrick, Eddie Olczyk and Darren Pang was a bit overly enthusiastic, going all out to sell the game.

The NHL didn't mind that a bit, nor did probably most of the viewers.

The drawbacks to the game were many. The ice, understandably, wasn't very good. Too much snow fell during the game and often would freeze on the ice. The Zamboni got more ice time than most of the players. At the midpoint of all three periods, two Zambonis were brought out to fix the ice, staying as long as nine minutes. There were at least two other delays of close to five minutes when the ice had to be worked on.

"You couldn't stickhandle," said Brian Campbell, who scored Buffalo's goal. "You had to push the puck along later in the period. You had to change your game a lot."

Penguins coach Michel Therrien said: "It was a tough game to play and probably the toughest game conditions-wise. The snow, the rain a little bit, and at some point, the wind."

But no one seemed to mind, least of all the fans. There did not appear to be an empty seat in this stadium, which is the home of the Buffalo Bills. It was that way in the first period; it was that way at the end of the game.

"When there was a break, I'd look around," said Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff. "It was incredible. It tells you we have some of the greatest fans. There wasn't an empty seat in the building. It was a great day."

Try as they might have, Penguins fans could not get their hands on enough tickets to truly make their presence felt. This wasn't an NFL game, where fans of losing teams gladly sell off their tickets. It was a Buffalo crowd, and if there's a franchise in the NHL with as devoted a corps of fans as the Penguins have, it's the Sabres. It was their game and they were going to savor it, which is as it should be.

And it wasn't wasted on the Penguins.

"For me growing up," Crosby said, "I played a lot outside and a lot of the guys did. When you got 70,000 people jammed into a stadium to watch hockey, it's a good sign. The atmosphere and environment, I don't think you can beat that. I think it's something to look back and say we had a lot of great memories being part of it. It's a pretty unbelievable experience and we all feel pretty lucky."

NHL hockey was not made to be played outdoors. It was made to be played inside in near-perfect conditions so the best players in the world have the optimum opportunity to display their skills. But sometimes you have to forget about what's best and go with what works. The Winter Classic should be annual. The NHL showed it knows how to run such a game and the fan base in Buffalo showed the public wants it.

"I'd love to do it again," said Ruff. "I thought it was awesome."

So make it yearly, and make the next one at Heinz Field.

Bob Smizik can be reached at . First Published January 2, 2008 5:00 AM


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