BUFFALO, New York (AFP) — More than 73,000 spectators will brave frigid conditions here Tuesday to watch the Buffalo Sabres and Pittsburgh Penguins stage the first National Hockey League game in a US outdoor venue.
The "Winter Classic" follows the tradition of the 2003 "Heritage Classic" staged in Edmonton with the Oilers playing host to the Montreal Canadiens and will shatter the league one-game attendance record of 57,167 set at that game.
Only 42,000 tickets were put up for public sale and those were all purchased in less than half an hour.
The Penguins are second in the Atlantic Division at 20-16 with two drawn after regulation for 42 points while the Sabres, 19-16 with two drawn after regulation for 40 points, are third in the Northeast Division.
Pittsburgh beat visiting Buffalo 2-0 on Saturday in a tune-up for the unique New Year's Day showdown, which could be postponed to January 2 if snow or other weather issues make conditions unsafe.
Pittsburgh's Ty Conklin made 26 saves to blank Buffalo for his first shutout of the season and improved his record to 4-0 on the season. Conklin also served between the pipes for Edmonton in the 2003 outdoor game.
"It will be different," Conklin said. "It certainly was in Edmonton. It will be exciting for both teams."
The NHL hopes the holiday game telecast will showcase Pittsburgh star Sidney Crosby to the US sports audience that typically watches collegiate American football showdowns on January 1.
Crosby set up Colby Armstrong's second period goal in the Penguins' triumph over the Sabres. The only other goal came in the final seconds after the Sabres had removed their goaltender for an extra attacker in a failed bid to equalize.
Armstrong is among the many Canadian players who can recall outdoor games as a schoolboy.
"Back home in Saskatoon, we were lucky enough to have outdoor rinks," Armstrong said. "I got to play outside a lot as a kid, at the park down the street from me, playing outside until the lights kicked us off the ice."
Pittsburgh's Georges Laraque played for Edmonton in the 2003 outdoor game and recalls how players wore winter caps under their helmets to combat the bitter cold.
"We all had to wear toques under our helmets. It was that cold," Laraque said. "It was a game where you would rather be sitting on the bench than playing, because we had heaters at our bench.
"It was the only game I've ever been in when guys didn't mind being benchwarmers. And no one was complaining about a lack of ice time."
Russian Maxim Afinogenov of the Sabres also recalled learning the game outdoors.
"We played outdoors all the time when I was a kid. It was fun," he said. "We didn't even know what it was like to play indoors. When you were growing up in Moscow, you always played outdoors."
Sabres center Tim Connolly, who grew up a three-hour drive east of Buffalo, also knows the joy and pain an outdoor game can bring.
"My dad built me a rink in my backyard. He got up early in the morning to make sure it was frozen and put the work in for me, and I was able to go out and play outside. I've always enjoyed skating outside," he said
"The weather could be a factor. There's no telling what could happen in Buffalo. There could be two feet of snow or it could be 55 degrees."
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