Hockey fans warm to Winter Classic - East Valley Tribune: Sports

Hockey fans warm to Winter Classic

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Posted: Saturday, December 27, 2008 9:36 pm | Updated: 10:59 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

As fun as it looked on TV, hockey outdoors while snowflakes fell, last New Year's NHL Winter Classic was apparently more of a blast in person.

"I really felt like I was at the Super Bowl," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff told of the Penguins' 2-1 shootout win in front of an NHL-record crowd of 71,217 inside the Bills' Ralph Wilson Stadium. "With the aircraft going over, the smoke and fireworks on the ice and just the roar of the people, it was an incredible atmosphere. To feel that energy as a hockey player and as a coach down on the football field and hear the roar of those 70-plus thousand was just overwhelming."

The game, Sabres forward Jason Pominville recalled afterward, turned out to be every bit as big as its buildup. The NHL has failed in many ways to promote its product, most notably with its reluctance to market and showcase its stars.

But the league should be commended for coming up with the Winter Classic and continuing it. For the hockey die-hard, it's fun and a return to the roots of the sport, which many Canadians grew up playing outdoors. For novices, it's a reason to tune in, to flip the channel from a college football bowl game and appreciate what they probably wouldn't have taken the time to otherwise.

It doesn't get any better than this New Year's edition: two of the Original Six teams in the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks playing in arguably the most famous ballpark — Wrigley Field.

It's the defending Stanley Cup champs against one of the hottest teams in the league, an up-and-comer whose revival in the Windy City represents the league's bounceback from the 2004 lockout.

"I think the game is going to be perfect for Jan. 1," Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane said on a conference call. "That's what the fans want to see — a lot of goals and a lot of up-tempo, a lot of skill in the game and two fast teams."

The NHL only helps itself by putting on such exhibitions in NFL and MLB buildings. The more it incorporates itself into the mainstream, the less it'll be viewed as a niche sport.

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