2008 Winter Classic

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Mike Emrick on calling the first Winter Classic, his favorite outdoor game venues (PHT Q&A)

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As he’s done for eight previous Winter Classics, NBC’s Doc Emrick will be behind the mic for Monday’s game at CitiField between the New York Rangers and Buffalo Sabres.

The date will be 10 years since the Sabres took part in the inaugural event at Ralph Wilson Stadium — a snowy, messy picturesque day that saw a dramatic end off the stick of Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby. Emrick was there, too, and his call of Crosby’s winner quickly became legendary.

The afternoon was the NHL going up against college football bowl season, which historically had played some of its top games on Jan. 1. In 2008, the Winter Classic went head-to-head against four NCAA football games, including Michigan-Florida in the Capital One Bowl. The curiosity factor into the outdoor hockey game coupled with the weather situation resulted in interest rising as the game went along.

“But the thing that I was guessing as the rain turned to sleet and then the sleet turned into snow and then the snow started piling up even more, was people calling people on the phone and saying ‘are you watching this game in Buffalo?’,” Emrick told Pro Hockey Talk last week. “[J]ust as the snow did, the viewership started to build, too. Just [like] that construction site you have that hole in the fence that people can stop on the sidewalk and peer in and look, they wanted to see how people were going to handle this. That’s the beauty of outdoor games. You don’t know what’s going to happen, and if the elements enter in how are these people there that are paid to do this going to somehow or other compensate for what the elements are bringing in?

“What better place than Buffalo to have a game like this and what better elements to have than snow and frequent stoppages and getting the Zamboni out to scrape it again and have all of these happen and then have the dramatic finish. It couldn’t have been a bigger star.”

We spoke with Emrick about calling that first game, his favorite venues and where his famous Crosby line came from.

Enjoy.

Q. It was a pretty special day for fans and the players involved, but what about the broadcasters? You weren’t just calling a typical hockey game.

EMRICK: “The strange thing was leading up to it, I don’t think any of us had a grasp on what it would really be like until the day of. We went out there the day before and we began by treating it like we would a regular game. [We] went out the day of the practices to see what a rink inside a football stadium would look like because it was the first of one of those things for us and we got as many stories as players as we could after that practice.

“We realized that with the stands being largely empty that day, that we had a rough idea that it would be pretty interesting the next day, especially given what the forecast was and what Buffalo’s persona was when it came to winter storms… We didn’t have a real feel on how spectacular it became until the players started down the ramps from the football dressing rooms and the bagpipes were playing and those bursts of fire were going up in the air. Still to this day guys will talk about never having heard 70-plus-thousand people cheering at once as they did for both teams as they made their entry and having that roar building.

“I believe Brian Campbell said it last year, it’s one of those things that builds and you hear it and you hear it get louder and it rolls. I think that’s the thing that we notice in all of these stadiums, but particularly in football stadiums.”

Q. How long did your notes last in that snow considering you and Eddie Olczyk were positioned outside?

“About the second period. I was advised beforehand that a smart thing to do was to get plexiglass and put our notes underneath that and that made a lot of sense. But my background is to use Sharpies and to record different colors of Sharpies for the different teams so they have contrasting colors. But the trouble is when you took it out from underneath the plexiglass to do that and then you put it back in, invariably some of the rain and then later on, the snow that had melted would roll underneath the plexiglass and get on your notes and get on your scorecard.

“By the third period, it was starting to run pretty badly and then there was that one time when Eddie and I were on camera that it had all pretty well drained off and it was in bad shape. I save all of my scorecards, so I still have that but it’s practically illegible. There are only a few things you can read on it.”

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Q. Has your call of an outdoor game evolved since that very first one?

“Well, what has evolved is this: it’s not the description of the game because I don’t prepare anything odd to say because it’s an outdoor game. I’m just calling a hockey game and I realize I’m pre-occupied more with the event than I am a game. In terms of who has the puck and describing passes and things like that, I don’t do as much as that. Part of the reason is that it is more of an event for people who may or not watch a lot of hockey. Secondly, our location is outdoors down next to the penalty box and it is somewhat difficult to see from either the press box in these giant stadiums or down near the penalty box because you can see really well in front of you, but to the sides you have difficulty and you have to shift to a monitor. You adjust somewhat and try not to be as precise and as descriptive of who has the puck now for a couple of reasons. One, it’s a little bit much for a non-hockey crowd, and two, you’re not really able to accomplish it and you recognize it going in it is an imperfect science, but the science stuff is not what the day is about. It’s about celebrating the sport outdoors where a lot of these guys, despite the fact that we’ve doing it 10 years, grew up playing.”

Q. Do you a favorite Winter Classic venue?

“The reason I like Fenway [Park], Michigan [Stadium] and Ralph Wilson [Stadium], was No. 1, it snowed at least either all day or part of the day; it was cold and all three games went to extra time. There are a lot of other reasons why I liked the three, but those are the three common grounds that they share. I like the fact that Michigan had the biggest crowd of all and is probably not going to be topped.”

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Q. The call on Sidney Crosby’s famous winner in the shootout — “The game on his stick…” — do you have those lines planned out ahead of time for big moments?

“The game on his stick,’ I’ve only used that twice and that was the second time and the last time I recall ever using it was that day. It was just one of those things that crossed my mind at the time.

“It was the first year out of the lockout, Crosby’s rookie year. Eddie Olczyk is coaching the Penguins and they’re playing the Flyers in the regular season. John Davidson and I are doing it for OLN, which later became Versus, which later became NBCSN. Sid gets his teeth knocked out in the first period by Derien Hatcher. Konstantin Koltsov cranks a shot in the warmup and it hits Jocelyn Thibault, the regular goaltender for the Penguins, in the throat so he can’t play. So this kid, Marc-Andre Fleury, is just there and he winds up being put in goal for the game and stands on his head and makes 40-some saves and it gets into overtime. There’s an outlet pass [and] Sid gets a breakaway from center ice on in and it just came “with the game on his stick.” I thought out of a dramatic game, a guy gets his teeth knocked out and here it is, his rookie year, and they’re underdogs playing in Philadelphia and this game could end here…

“We’re in the sixth shot of the shootout and this could be the last shot, so you take a chance because if Ryan Miller stops him, then we move on. But as it turned out, Sid scored on it so it’s remembered more for that. I can’t recall ever using it since.”

Q. You mentioned your favorite venues before. Do you have a favorite moment or goal from the games you’ve done?

“I guess the ones that ended of those three games because they drew to an ending of a chapter of a Winter Classic that was kind of marvelous. I think in terms of the fans, the game at Michigan Stadium was probably the most exciting from what was going on in the stands because you had 105,000 people and it was almost 50/50 because of all the Toronto fans that were in Canada, 20 or 30 miles away from Ann Arbor, and they got hold of the tickets. It was the blue and red throng there of 105,000, and so when one team scored it was about as loud as when the other team scored. That was an interesting dynamic… For drama, the most dramatic of the games would have been Crosby’s.

“We still haven’t had in the Winter Classic a shutout. So, who knows? Maybe we’ll see that this year.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Sabres’ Jason Pominville ready for third outdoor game experience

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The weather was brutal. The snow was coming down. It was cold. It wasn’t pleasant to be outside. But that didn’t stop hockey fans from being out in the elements hours before the start of the first ever NHL Winter Classic between the Buffalo Sabres and Pittsburgh Penguins.

As Jason Pominville drove into the parking lot at Ralph Wilson Stadium on New Year’s Day 2008 he noticed the weather didn’t keep fans away that morning. There was plenty of tailgating, street hockey and, of course, bonfires to keep everyone busy and warm. It was a scene. It was one big party, and there was no way some snow or below freezing temperatures was going to keep fans from enjoying the day.

That was the first time that day that it hit Pominville just how big the Winter Classic was as an event. Fans were excited hours before puck drop. Inside the locker rooms, players were, too. While two points were on the line for both the Sabres and Penguins, it was an experience that broke up the monotony of an 82-game NHL schedule.

The next time Pominville had a “wow” moment was when both teams marched out of the tunnel and onto the field on their way to the rink. The snow was still coming down and the players were welcomed by smoke machines and giant flames that blasted above their heads. There was also that unforgettable sound of the 71,217 fans in attendance that was like one big neverending roar.

“It was crazy. It’s tough to describe the feeling,” Pominville told Pro Hockey Talk recently. “You’re kind of in awe of everything that’s going on — snowy day, fireworks, choppers for the national anthem, 70,000 people. Just the whole build up for the game was crazy.”

Despite the frigid temperatures and wind, sleet, snow and rain to deal with, Pominville didn’t add any extra layers as the game went on. The players were told by athletic trainers about the different options available to them — from lotions to various pieces of clothing that could protect them, but having access to a heated bench between shifts coupled with the layers they were already wearing was more than enough to survive the afternoon.

No players were injured, thankfully, as the ice surface was less than ideal as the game wore on. Several times throughout the afternoon, NHL ice guru Dan Craig and his staff had to patch up a certain spot on the surface. That led to the game being delayed, but that extra time gave players and the coaching staffs to embrace the event.

“The game kind of took forever [with delays], you really had a chance to sink it all in where you’re looking around like ‘oh man, this is cool. this is what it’s all about,’” Pominville said. “The league’s done a great job of building up and look what it’s become now — there’s shows, there’s cameras following us around. It’s pretty cool the way [it’s] evolved, for sure.”

Eight years later Pominville would get a chance to play in a second outdoor game. This one didn’t have the famous snow globe effect to it like Buffalo, but TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis was a fine setting for a 2016 Stadium Series game as his Minnesota Wild played the Chicago Blackhawks. It also allowed the teams to have an easier time trying to play their system. The snow at Ralph Wilson Stadium made it difficult as the piled up snow made it difficult to move the puck at times.

Now as Pominville, who will be playing in his third outdoor game, preps for the 10th anniversary Winter Classic matchup, he has some simple advice for players: enjoy it. Yes, it’s a regular season game with points on the line, but it’s also a special time for players and their families. It’s also an experience that not every NHL franchise has been able to be a part of.

“The build up to these games are pretty amazing now. It’s fun to have a chance to play in one of these again,” he said. “I think everyone will have fun and enjoy it. Hopefully we can win the game.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.