Winter Classic fans take game delay in stride

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It was a dark and hockey night.

But given the party-like atmosphere in the parking lots surrounding Heinz Field on Saturday, few fans seemed to mind that weather conditions had forced the National Hockey League to delay its 2011 Winter Classic game from its planned 1 p.m. start.

"I think it's better at 8 o'clock," said Art Ciacchella, 52, a Penguins season-ticket holder from Johnstown. "It's a nice night for a game. And we're making NHL history."

PG VIDEO: Fans on the Winter Classic experience

The NHL introduced its Winter Classic on New Year's Day 2008, with the Penguins playing the Buffalo Sabres on a rink set up outdoors in Rich Stadium in Orchard Park, N.Y. Since then, it's been played on outdoor rinks in Chicago's Wrigley Field (2009) and Boston's Fenway Park (2010).

Like those games, this year's Classic, featuring Sidney Crosby and the Penguins versus Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals, had been scheduled for an afternoon start, but unseasonably mild temperatures and the threat of rain prompted the league -- and the NBC television network -- to wait until evening.

Given the alternatives of playing the game in the rain or postponing it altogether to another day, there weren't many complaints. As a matter of fact, most of the people in the parking lots embraced the evening fray.

"It's better for the game that it's in prime time and the rest of the country can see it," Mr. Ciacchella said. "We're real hockey fans here, but the rest of the country isn't that into the sport. Hopefully, they'll watch this and see Crosby and Ovechkin, and there will be more exposure."

Adapting to the later start seemed to come fairly easy. It wasn't like this was uncharted territory for Pittsburgh sports fans.

"This isn't our first time tail-gating in the parking lot, but it's the first time we've done it for a hockey game," said Travis Moran, 26, of Fombell. "It's a different, but it's familiar. It's a Penguins game with a Steelers feel. I've got my Terrible Towel, I've got my Crosby jersey."

Mr. Moran and his party of 12 arrived at Heinz Field with only four tickets in hand. But they had acquired a parking pass from a guy on Craigslist, so they were more than happy.

"We had to be here. It's like the Super Bowl," Mr. Moran said. "The best part is how the Steelers are supporting the Penguins with this. As fans, that means a lot to us."

Capitals fan Bill Anaya, 39, of Alexandria, Va., came with his friend, Mike Pagliaro, 48, a Penguins fan. Because of the nighttime start, they had to make arrangements to spend the night at the Johnstown home of Mr. Pagliaro's relatives. They also had to make sure their 8-year-old sons, William Anaya in a Caps jersey and Jake Pagliaro wearing a Crosby one, took afternoon naps so they could stay up later.

"We didn't know about the postponement until we were already here. But we just roll with it," Mr. Anaya said. "We want the best possible hockey experience, and we know pucks don't slide on wet ice."

Penguins fan Diane Knight, 59, almost passed up the chance to attend the game because she didn't have anyone to look after her shih-tzu, Lily, back home in Johnstown. She and the rest of her group -- made up of five Capitals fans -- arrived in town Thursday, but she was just about ready to return home.

"My brother was looking after the dog, but he's a pastor, and he has to work Sunday morning," she said. "So we had to get someone else to come in and take care of the dog."

The group also had to move from the Sheraton Station Square, where they spent their first nights, to the Marriott near the Consol Energy Center for Saturday night.

"But it's worth it," said Patrick Curran, 29, of Harrisburg. "We were just talking about how it's going to be cooler to see a night game. It feels more like a Sunday night football game. It could be the way they play them in the future."

Craig Posnikoff, 25, of Vancouver, and his friend, Alex Blair, 26, of Toronto, made the Winter Classic a special road trip destination. The later start gave them a greater opportunity to enjoy Pittsburgh.

"For Canadians, hockey is ingrained," Mr. Blair said. "It's different here, though. Like the tail-gating. You don't get that in Canada. So that's pretty cool to see first-hand, just the amount of people that have been here all day. It's pretty wicked.

"We've been Downtown the whole weekend. We hit that sandwich place everybody talks about. And then on New Year's Eve, we just walked around Downtown and had dinner at a restaurant and watched the fireworks and the parade. The whole weekend has been awesome. I had no idea what a great city this is."

Mr. Moran said that was the best part about the Winter Classic -- the city's chance to shine.

"It's surprising to me to see the number of hockey fans," he said. "I've seen people from all over, especially Canada. And, you know, it's Canada's sport, and they're more than welcome to come to Pittsburgh to enjoy it."

Dan Majors: or 412-263-1456.


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