It's outdoors, it's in Buffalo, it's the hottest ticket around

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Chris Koon has something his friends covet -- tickets to the Winter Classic outdoor hockey game between the Penguins and Buffalo Sabres on New Year's Day.

"Everyone says, 'Are you still going? It's going to be cold out there', " said Mr. Koon, 38, a sales representative from Bridgeville.

But he's wise to their tricks. Lucky enough to get tickets online Sept. 18 during the 20 minutes it took for about 42,000 to disappear, he's not giving them up. Along with his girlfriend, Leslie Cunningham, and another couple, he's driving to the 73,967-seat sold-out Ralph Wilson Stadium in suburban Buffalo on Tuesday morning.

"I want to go because of the specialness of the game, being outside. It's a huge event," said Mr. Koon, a recreational hockey player who follows the Penguins and goes to a handful of home games a season.

It's difficult to say what the flavor of the crowd will be for the 1 p.m. nationally televised game, the first outdoor National Hockey League regular-season game in the United States. The last outdoor game was Nov. 22, 2003, when the Edmonton Oilers and the Montreal Canadiens collided at Edmonton's Commonwealth Stadium

Penguins season ticket holders, who didn't have to fight the online crowd, quickly gobbled up their allotment of 1,500 tickets and a later allotment of about 2,200, some limited-view. Joellen Ferrerr, corporate communications specialist with online broker StubHub.com, said as of late last week the so-called Ice Bowl was their best-selling NHL game this season in dollar volume. There were still more than 300 tickets for sale. The average purchase price was $210, the top price $2,200.

Pennsylvanians accounted for 19 percent of StubHub's sales for the game, Ms. Ferrerr said, second only to New York at 56 percent.

"That's a pretty high number for visiting team sales," she said.

Even Mr. Koon was briefly tempted into testing that market.

"We joked about [selling our tickets for profit] at first, then when we saw what some seats were going for, we did put them on StubHub for two weeks to see if we got any bites," he said. "They didn't sell, so we happily took them down."

Others have gotten their price, and there should be plenty of Penguins fans in the stadium.

"I think we're confident that Penguins fans are resourceful," Penguins vice president of communications Tom McMillan said.

That goes for the travel plans of those who got their hands on tickets.

Mr. Koon said his foursome is going to lie low tomorrow night, leave early Tuesday, then have a day-late New Year's Eve celebration in nearby Niagara Falls, Ontario, after the game before returning Wednesday.

Colleen Smith, 51, of Bethel Park, is in a group of 10 who obtained tickets in the initial online rush. She and some in her group are driving to Erie tomorrow and spending the night before going on to the game Tuesday and driving back after the game. Others are driving both ways on Tuesday, said Ms. Smith, a legal secretary who has been a Penguins fan since she was 16 and a season ticket holder for more than 20 years.

"I am not a cold-weather person. I've sold my Steeler tickets for bad weather games," Ms. Smith said. "But I'm such a hockey fan. It's so fast. There's always something going on.

"I go back to the blue and white uniforms, to Rod Schutt, Ron Stackhouse, Lowell MacDonald."

Ms. Smith will get to see those blue and white sweaters again. Both teams are wearing throwback uniforms for the game.

In perhaps an indication of Penguins' fans interest in the outdoor game is this statistic from the NHL: Two of the top 10 selling items on Shop.NHL.com for December have been Penguins Winter Classic products -- a classic hoody and a Sidney Crosby name and number T-shirt.

The NHL has put a good deal of effort into promoting the game, although some of that effort turned out to be unneeded.

Concerned about ticket sales, the league had a marketing campaign set to run from September through game day, including shuffling Mr. Crosby to Buffalo earlier this month to make a promotional appearance. That plan was shelved when the Buffalo Bills' stadium sold out so quickly.

The league still is working to drum up viewers for the NBC telecast. Ratings for the game, which kicks off NBC's 2007-08 NHL coverage, could largely determine whether or how soon there might be more outdoor games.

One variable no one can control is the weather, but the forecast seems ideal -- temperature in the mid-30s with maybe a few snow showers.

With seats set back for football viewing, it may be a little difficult to follow the puck on the rink, which is set up in the middle of the field.

That doesn't bother Jim McVay, a Penguins season ticket holder who obtained limited-view tickets from the team's supplemental allotment.

"I think it's just a neat thing for the NHL," said Mr. McVay, who coaches the Bethel Park High School hockey team and has combined his interest in the game with some clever fund-raising.

He lined up a bus to leave early Tuesday and return after the game and has rounded up people -- most with tickets, some without -- to pay $75 for the trip including hoagies and sodas, with proceeds to benefit the Bethel Park team.

"I've never done anything like this, but it's worth putting in the time," said Mr. McVay, who has a friend in Toronto who got his hands on some tickets there that could be for sale to those on the bus needing them.

"This way people don't have to worry about a hotel or about driving," Mr. McVay said. "Some of them will still be celebrating New Year's Eve when we leave, and then they can enjoy the game."


Shelly Anderson can be reached at shanderson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1721.


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