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.”
Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.