ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- To the 71,217 fans packed into the freezing confines of snow-whipped Ralph Wilson Stadium for the National Hockey League's Winter Classic yesterday, it seemed like the fun would never end.
Like ... it ... would ... never ... end.
"The Ice Bowl," as it was affectionately known, pitted the Penguins and the Buffalo Sabres in an epic outdoor battle played on the choppy and sloppy ice of a rink erected in the middle of the stadium where the National Football League's Buffalo Bills play. The rare outdoor regular-season NHL game -- the first-ever in the United States -- was televised nationwide to an audience that presumably sat through elaborate pregame ceremonies, lengthy resurfacing and repairs of patchy ice, goalies changing ends, an overtime period and a shootout.
The Zambonis made more laps than some cars at Indy.
But to the Penguins fans who went to great lengths -- and prices -- for tickets, the drive to Buffalo, the derision of Sabres fans and the duration of the game were all worth it.
Because the Pens won.
"It was nuts. It was amazing," said Tom Kanas, 21, of Monroeville, who made the trip with three friends from Robert Morris University. "I lost my voice. We were the only [Penguins fans] in our section."
Their section was No. 338, where they withstood a daylong diet of snow in the uppermost reaches of the bleachers.
"[The Sabres fans] were pretty friendly to us," said John Dominick, 20, also of Monroeville, who, like his buddies, sported a Penguins jersey. "It could have been worse. They could have been pouring beer and stuff on us. I was a little nervous going into overtime. But once we got to the shootout, I knew we'd win."
"When we won, they all had their heads down and we were jumping up and down," said Craig Leith, 20, of Monroeville. "We let the whole section know where we were."
For the most part, Penguins fans were easy to spot. They sported their colors -- whether it be traditional black-and-gold or the throwback powder blue versions rolled out for this event. And they were vocal, even in the face of hostiles.
Alex Rodkey, 18, a senior at Penn Hills High School, and four of his friends faced down an onslaught of Buffalo supporters in a parking-lot snowball fight that was friendly enough at the outset but ended with a cavalry-like charge from the enemy that almost turned ugly.
Fortunately, reporters are allowed to run and hide.
Marikaye Detemple, 20, of Clearfield, and her six friends came to the game dressed as giant penguins -- the birds, not the players -- and patiently posed for pictures with scores of less-than-sober Sabres fans.
"We have to show our team support," said Miss Detemple, a student at Penn State. "And jerseys are just so old-fashioned."
Many Pittsburgh fans made a holiday event of the New Year's Day game, coming up the night before and celebrating the new year in downtown Buffalo with thousands of newfound friends. Others, including Tracy and Doug Kerr of Bethel Park, found their way to The Anchor Bar, the original home of Buffalo-style hot wings.
Trevor Garside, 27, of Coraopolis, and seven friends holed up in a Red Roof Inn out by Interstate 90, where they drank beer, grilled beefsteak and dipped chips into the new year, thinking the less driving on New Year's Eve, the better.
Sabres fan Bill Russo, 44, a school administrator in Buffalo, surveyed the opposing fans at the stadium and said it seemed as though everyone appreciated the significance of the event they were attending.
"It gives [hockey] a special meaning to play it outside," Mr. Russo said. "I remember, as a kid, playing hockey in the park where I grew up. It's an outdoor game. ... As long as it's only once a year."
As for the intrusion of Penguins fans on their frozen turf, Mr. Russo saluted those who made the road trip.
"It's a good contingent," he said. "Certainly more than we'd see in the arena. It's like a Steelers game here. Pittsburgh fans travel."
Dan Majors can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1456. First Published January 2, 2008 5:00 AM