Most of the MYFO crew were nestled snugly in the butt grooves of their couches for the liveblog. The Legend of Vincent Tremblay, however, found the right combination of incantations and sacrifices to appease the TicketMaster Gods, and made his way to Orchard Park to witness the Winter Classic first hand. While his attempts at participating in the liveblog by email turned into a fight to prevent his wireless provider from remotely detonating the battery in his phone, he did collect enough notes to prepare this report.
Welcome to Buffalo
The drive up from Pittsburgh was an uneventful 3 1/2 hours. (This is called foreshadowing.)
This was, for all the travel I’ve done, the first time I’ve been a road fan. Other times, when I’ve travelled to a sporting event, there wasn’t a Pittsburgh team involved. So this would be my first chance to take what the Old College Roommate and I have dished out for years from over the visitor’s runway at Mellon Arena.
It was also my first experience with a suburban venue. Coming from a city where the major arenas are in the heart of the city, it struck me as odd to drive up Rt. 20-A and see grocery store, bank, homes, community college building, more homes, neighborhood bar, more homes– 74,000-seat football stadium. As I sat in the traffic on 20-A, I remarked to the Old College Roommate that you’d have to be a real Bills fan to live in Orchard Park, or else you’d have to be a hostage in your own home for eight Sundays per year. We parked at a little Italian restaurant on 20-A, and walked up Abbott to the stadium.
As we walked, we saw scattered pockets of fans in black and gold or powder blue amidst a sea of Sabres jerseys of all generations. But I stopped worrying about how things would go for a Penguin fan in Buffalo when we got behind a family of Sabres fans. One young man was wearing an orange Miami Dolphins blanket as a cape. He took about 100 times as much heat for that Dolphins blanket as OCR and I did in full Penguins kit. As we got closer to the gate, he went from wearing the blanket, to folding it and tucking it under his arm, to hiding it under his coat.
The scene as we entered the seating area was beautiful. We were in a small pocket of Penguin fans in section 114, right on the goal line at the end nearest the kiddie “pond”, just up the “sideline” from CBC’s temporary studio. (We couldn’t see what Grapes was wearing, but I’m sure it was awful.) From down low, the distance between the boards and the stands didn’t look quite as bad as it did in the panoramic shots you may have seen in the ubiquitous time-lapse setup video.
A few more pre-game notes:
- The teams were led out for the pre-game skate by Highland pipes, not flash pots borrowed from Vince McMahon.
- If you were yelling “Get on with it!” at Ronan Tynan’s rambling speech before “God Bless America” on your TV, you weren’t alone.
- Give a bonus to whoever decided on throwback uniforms. The Sabres should just give up on the Buff-a-slug.
- Odd as it may have seemed for some to see a Pittsburgh team out of their civic-minded black and gold, powder blue looks as good on Sidney Crosby as it does on LaDanian Tomlinson. When third jerseys come back, bet on the Pens to go retro.
- The Ralph Wilson Stadium crew did a good job of decorating the stadium with Winter Classic signs. I kinda liked the “icicles and dasher boards” theme.
You couldn’t have come up with a better start if you were a Pens fan. Nothing will shut up sixty-odd thousand Sabres fans quite like Colby Armstrong poking home a rebound before anybody could start a proper “Let’s Go Buff-a-lo!” Then again, nothing will shut up a horde of invading yinzers quite like being out-shot 14-2 in the second period. At least the Penguins believe in truth in advertising: They’ve taken a twenty minute nap in just about every game they’ve played this season.
As you’ve heard just about everywhere, the snow bogged the game down to a crawl. It was, by far, the slowest game I’ve ever witnessed. And I’ve seen Steve Poapst in a Penguin uniform. And that was the game action. The non-game “action” was even worse. The extra scrapes during the 10:00 TV timeouts seemed to take forever, not to mention the spot patches. The game may have been hockey, but the incessant time outs gave it the feel of a live NFL game.
In that way, it gave the day a very odd feeling. As a made-for-TV spectacle, it was great. The lower bowl was standing for the entire game. There was a constant buzz when there wasn’t a “Let’s Go Buff-a-lo!” or “Let’s Go Pens” chant. Everybody was having a good time being there.
As a live hockey game, not so much. There wasn’t much to do about the gap between the ice and the stands, so we just had to deal with the messed up sight lines and sense of detachment. The Ryan Miller vs. Jean-Sebastien Aubin (Aubin?!) AMP spot was clever the first dozen times we saw it on the scoreboard, but by the third period, I think everybody had enough spectacle, and just wanted to wrap things up.
So of course, it went all the way to a shootout. And of course, it came down to Sidney Crosby vs. Ryan Miller with the game on the line, just like the writers drew it up before they went on strike. There were high fives and hugs all around in our section. The Sabres fans were naturally bummed at losing, but not even that could dampen the spirit of the day.
Ralph Wilson Stadium did find one way to make Pens fans feel at home. An exit gate that thousands of Bills game veterans expected to be open wasn’t, creating a concourse traffic jam worthy of Mellon Arena. Then, once we were out of the stadium, we had to clear the way for a fire truck responding to a dumpster fire. Fortunately, we had an easy time getting out of the parking lot, and it wasn’t long before we were back on I-90 westbound.
The Great Southwestern Excursion
From there, it should have been a matter of joining the massive caravan of Pittsburghers wending their way down I-90 and I-79. Instead, it was a massive caravan of Pittsburghers creeping down I-90 and I-79 at half speed, thanks to a snowfall that covered the road surface and severely limited visibility.
Safe distance-driving practices say that you should take a 15-minute break every two hours, and my car’s trip computer has a built-in warning just for that. (OCR scoffed at that rule, but he also slept for much of the trip home.) On the way up, we stopped in Grove City for dinner, but didn’t see the 2:00:00 warning until just before the Angola rest stop on I-90.
On the way home, it took 2 1/2 hours just to get from Orchard Park to Erie, where we stopped for dinner and gas. Quaker Steak and Lube’s crowd was almost entirely Pens fans getting their regular dose of Buckeye BBQ sauce. It then took another 2 1/2 hours to get from Erie to Grove City, where we stopped to clean ice and salt from the windshield and grab a drink. That Sheetz may have made their profit for the entire month of January just from Pittsburghers needing a break from the treacherous driving conditions. It was another 2 hours from Grove City to my home. That trek rarely took more than an hour in college.
From my house in the northern suburbs, OCR had a
45-minute 1 1/2 hour drive back to his place south of town. I haven’t talked to him yet, so I don’t know if he fell asleep at his desk today or not.
Same Time Next Year!
And if you told us that the oft-rumored Pens-Flyers game at Beaver Stadium was on, we’d be right there in line for tickets.
This wasn’t so much about the 39th game of each team’s season. This was about the game. This was our New Year’s party, half a day later than everybody else’s, but all the more fun because we care more about hockey than we do our local town’s pale imitation of the Times Square ball drop. We were feeling it in the stands. The players felt it on the ice.
Lindy Ruff certainly felt it on the Sabres’ bench. Dressed in an old-school varsity jacket, Ruff spent many of the long ice repair breaks looking around at the fans, the big, dumb grin on his face saying, “This is so friggin’ cool!”
In the post-game press conference, when asked if he’d do it again, Ruff concluded his thoughts with this sentiment: “The hell with the cynics.”
Preach it, brother!