Why Buffalo Deserves Another Winter Classic

On New Year’s Day back in 2008, the first game of the Winter Classic series was played at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Ralph Wilson Stadium is located in the suburb of Orchard Park, NY which is a short ride from downtown Buffalo. That day, the Sabres took on the Pittsburgh Penguins in a match that ended in dramatic fashion at the hands of Sidney Crosby – much to the dismay of Sabres fans. This was the first Winter Classic game and the first outdoor NHL game played in the United States.

The game had it all. A key match-up featured Pittsburgh’s superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin who squared off against Sabres’ goaltender Ryan Miller. The weather provided some light snow that created a wintery atmosphere. Fans of the Sabres and of hockey in general packed the venue and the event was well received by television audiences across the United States. Aside from some minor issues with the ice and the outcome of the match, if you are a Sabres fan, the event is fondly remembered by those who attended it.

Fast forward almost seven years later and the Winter Classic has taken a prominent role as a re-occurring event at the dawn of the new year. Since the first Winter Classic held in Buffalo, the event has continued with games played at Wrigley Field, Fenway Park, Heinz Field, Citizens Bank Park, and Michigan Stadium. This year the event will take place at Nationals Park.

Meanwhile, the NHL Stadium Series has also brought outdoor games to US venues such as Yankee Stadium, Dodger Stadium, Soldier Field and the upcoming event at Levi’s Stadium. The Heritage Classic has also featured outdoor games in Canada with games played at Commonwealth Stadium, McMahon Stadium and at BC Place. NHL outdoor games have taken some criticism for their frequency and for repeating the participating teams, but on the whole the outdoor games have been a major draw for hockey fans. Since 2008, the opportunity to host an outdoor hockey game has generated strong interest from NHL cities across the US and Canada.

With the recent opening of Harbor Center, Buffalo’s selection to host the NHL Combine in 2015 and 2016 as well as the NHL Entry Draft in 2016, the city is quickly becoming a hockey destination. During the press conference where NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman announced that Buffalo would host the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, he also hinted that perhaps another Winter Classic game would be played in the Nickel City – possibly in 2018.

As the seven year anniversary approaches since the original event in Buffalo, the city is undergoing a major rebirth. The cast of players and organizational leadership has changed but Buffalo still has one of the NHL’s strongest fan bases. While there hasn’t been a lot of on-ice success in recent seasons as far as the Sabres are concerned, the support from the Buffalo market has not faded. The combination of a growing city with that of a strong fan base makes Buffalo a prime city to host another Winter Classic.

[See Also: Has the NHL Killed the Winter Classic? by Matt Brauckmann]

 

Remembering the 2008 Winter Classic in Buffalo

The Winter Classic of 2008 in Buffalo was a great event that will be forever endeared by Buffalonians. Buffalo’s roster has undergone some dramatic changes since the game played at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Lindy Ruff was the Sabres coach and Darcy Regier led the front office. The former Sabres who skated in the game for Buffalo include forwards Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville, and Paul Gaustad, defensemen Brian Campbell and Jaroslav Spacek and, of course, goaltender Ryan Miller.

Meanwhile, some of the Pittsburgh Penguins of yesteryear who played in the 2008 Winter Classic include forwards Colby Armstrong, Jordan Staal, and Ryan Malone, defensemen Ryan Whitney and Sergei Gonchar and goaltender Ty Conklin. Former bench boss Michel Therrien led the charge for the Penguins in snowy Buffalo. Current superstars Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang also played a prominent role in the outcome of this tilt at the Ralph.

Pittsburgh forward Colby Armstrong opened up the scoring just twenty-one seconds into the first period and Sidney Crosby got the helper. This became the first goal scored in an NHL outdoor game in the US. Former Sabres defenseman Brian Campbell put the Sabres on the board just over a minute into the second period with assists from ex-Sabres Tim Connolly and Daniel Paille.

Regulation time ended in a tie and the game ultimately went to a shootout. The shootout took just three rounds to decide the winner. Former Sabre Ales Kotalik was the first shooter and he lit the lamp for the early lead. Buffalo wouldn’t score again in the shootout. Kris Letang beat Ryan Miller to tie it up and then Sidney Crosby scored in the third round of the shootout to secure the 2-1 victory for Pittsburgh.

While Buffalo did manage to out-shoot the Penguins by a 37 to 25 margin, the Sabres ultimately fell short in this contest. The outcome was disappointing but the event received high praise and it was very unique for its time. More than 71,000 fans were present at Ralph Wilson Stadium to witness the first outdoor game played in the US and the first Winter Classic. The event was well attended, very well-received and it set the precedent for the subsequent Winter Classic games that have occurred since 2008.

 

Buffalo’s Strong Support of Hockey

The last few seasons have made it difficult on Sabres fans as the club is undergoing a rebuild. Last season was a low point for the organization during which the Sabres set several franchise lows including an NHL-worst 1.83 average goals per game.

Despite the lows, Sabres fans have continued to support the team through season ticket sales. The Buffalo News reported in September that ninety-three percent of season ticket holders renewed their season tickets for the 2014-2015 season. This statistic is pretty remarkable given the fact that the price of tickets increased and the Sabres finished dead last in the NHL standings last season.

The Buffalo market has regularly ranked near the top of the list of US cities with regards to TV ratings on hockey events. For example, during the 2014 Winter Classic the Buffalo TV market rated second in the United States. According to the Buffalo News, when it came to TV ratings Detroit  ranked first followed by Buffalo, Pittsburgh, St. Louis and Chicago.

While Buffalo is considered a small market team, the region has shown its dedication to the sport of hockey time after time. Sabres owner Terry Pegula has augmented this devotion by building a top-notch facility to extend the city’s hockey footprint. The Harbor Center, which recently opened across the street from the First Niagara Center, features two hockey rinks, the Academy of Hockey, a soon-to-be-opened hotel, and retail space. Harbor Center will soon become the host of the NHL Draft Combine and it promises to be a centerpiece of hockey in Buffalo for years to come.

Hockey is a sport that is near and dear to the hearts of many in the Buffalo region. Buffalo has demonstrated its devotion to the sport through a variety of avenues including TV ratings, solid season ticket sales, and strong support despite the lows that come with a rebuilding franchise. For these reasons, Buffalo should be given strong consideration to host another Winter Classic game at the Ralph.

 

A Return to Buffalo?

Since Sabres owner Terry Pegula purchased the Buffalo Bills earlier this season, there has been a lot of discussion about building a new NFL stadium in Buffalo. This will take time to come to fruition but when it does, the early word around town is that it will likely be an enclosed facility. If this were to happen, what will become of Ralph Wilson Stadium? Will it be maintained, sold off, or dismantled?

The answer to the Bills’ new stadium question will come with time but where does this leave the Sabres with regards to another Winter Classic? As Gary Bettman hinted back in October, perhaps the most opportune time for the Winter Classic to return to Buffalo would be in 2018 for the ten year anniversary of the first Winter Classic. We may have an answer to the new Bills stadium question by 2018 but the Ralph should still be available then to host an outdoor game.

Ideally, in three more years the Sabres should be a much improved team in comparison to this year’s squad. By 2018, some of Buffalo’s young prospect talent will have filtered its way through to the AHL or perhaps established a role in the NHL. While it is definitely possible that it could take longer than three years for Buffalo to return to form, the Sabres should at the very least be a more competitive club by 2018.

If the 2018 Winter Classic comes to Buffalo, perhaps a rematch against the Pittsburgh Penguins should be on tap. Sidney Crosby ended the 2008 game on a sour note for Sabres fans so a rematch will provide an opportunity for revenge.

Another interesting possibility would be a match up against the Toronto Maple Leafs. With a spirited atmosphere each time these clubs meet at the First Niagara Center and a strong regional rivalry, a Winter Classic game between the Sabres and Leafs could make for a crazy atmosphere. Time will tell if the Winter Classic returns to Buffalo in 2018 but the city makes a compelling case to bring the event back to where it all began.

[See Also: Exploring Options: Five Possible Venues for Future NHL Outdoor Games by Brad Friedman]