Jack Kukoda is a native of Buffalo, NY and is a writer for the Onion News Network. He lives in New York City now. And he was at the outdoors Sabres-Penguins game yesterday and files this most amusing report.
I don't care if it's officially the Amp Winter Classic 2008, everyone from Buffalo's been calling this the Ice Bowl since August, except for when the NHL is suing them to stop. So it's the Ice Bowl. And I had been waiting months for it to finally arrive.
The hotel, and greater downtown Buffalo, was decked out in signs welcoming fans and media to the Ice Bowl. Buffalo was clearly doing its best, "Look at us, we're a big time city and worthy of your attention" act. Like when you're in sixth grade and your family is kind of poor, but you've invited all the coolest kids over for a party, so you do your best to hide all the clutter and make the threadbare furniture look nice and dance around the question of why there's a rusted car just sitting in the backyard. Right, guys? You all know what I'm talking about, right? Okay, just me.
Even though I grew up there, I wasn't thrilled with the prospect of spending New Year's in Buffalo, so I tried to get myself invited to some NHL parties. I figured that if the NHL was forcing their employees to spend New Year's Eve in Buffalo, they'd throw them a pretty great party. I was wrong.
My top secret network of NHL sources (one guy) told me there would be a small media reception hosted by the NHL at a bar downtown. It was mostly empty when we showed up.
We thought we might be at the wrong place, so I asked the bartender, "Is the NHL party here?" "I don't know," he said, "There are a lot of Penguins fans." He was right, there were about 60 or so Pens fans in the bar and someone must have told them it was a formal event because their dress code was Pittsburgh Black Tie: Steelers and Penguins jerseys and black jeans. It looked like Steely McBeam's wedding. (Take that, poorly named mascot!)
The Penguins fans felt the need to remind everyone who they were there to see by chanting "Let's Go Pens" every 10 minutes or so. Even the countdown to New Year's somehow turned into a goddamn Penguins chant. You'd think people from Pittsburgh wouldn't be so eager to announce it, but then again I'm from Buffalo and I advertise that fact like a John Mellencamp commercial, so what the hell do I know? At any rate, the Pens fans were a mostly friendly bunch, despite the fact the bar didn't serve Yuengling or Iron City Beer. Ritch, 289, and I had planned to make it an early night so we could get up in the morning, but once we met up with an NHL guy and started buying 289 birthday shots, those plans went out the window.
We made it home around 4 a.m., but not before Ritch found a hotel room party consisting of nine dudes and a bottle of whiskey and 289 worked his Shortsville, NY charms on an unsuspecting lady from Pittsburgh.
I woke up four hours later and called 289 at his hotel. "Rise and shine," I yelled into the phone. "It's Ice Bowl day!" We met 289 at his hotel and headed over to the stadium.
Not to get all literary-referencey on you, but if you've read Cormac McCarthy's "The Road," you have a good idea of what tailgating in the parking lots around The Ralph is like. Everything is cold and gray, the pavement is cracked and blistered, and there are marauding bands of lunatics who may attack without warning. In short, it's glorious.
289 and I both noticed that the day's tailgating was much more subdued than at the average Bills game. The trashcan fires were kept mostly under control and Pens fans were able to walk around with only minimal taunting. Ritch even wore a Patriots hat the entire day and only got called a cocksucker about half a dozen times. At a Bills game that would get you pelted with rocks.
We met up with some tailgaters from Bfloblog.com and ate beef on wecks and some "cheesy potatoes" that the chef promised "would bind us up for a week" as if it were a selling point. He was right. I had two servings and about an hour later I felt like I had a stomach full of brick mortar.
At about 12:30 we made our way into the stadium. You could feel the jittery anticipation in the crowd as we waited to get patted down for, according to a sign, aerosol cans and hidden beers. (N.B. They never check below your torso, so if you've got a hollowed-out false leg, you can sneak in all the spray paint and Labatt Blue you want.) Once inside, I embarrassed 289 and Ritch by practically running to our seats due to my excitement. The weather was perfect. Right around 32 degrees with just enough snow to remind you you're in Buffalo without affecting visibility.
Seeing the rink set up in the middle of the field and 70,000 plus fans at a hockey game for the first time was pretty incredible. We were sitting in the endzone, right behind a small rink they constructed for kids to play a pickup hockey game on before the game. The kids were dressed in opposing Sabres and Penguins jerseys, and whenever the Penguins team scored, the crowd, to their credit, booed those traitorous 10 year olds.
After a rousing rendition of O Canada and God Bless America, replete with giant flags (I'm a sucker for giant flags!), the game got underway. The Penguins sucked the fun out of the game pretty quickly by scoring just 21 seconds in. A frightening thought suddenly occurred to us. After months of anticipation, what if the Sabres just got blown out? I'd gotten used to seeing horrendous on-field performances at Ralph Wilson by the Bills, but I was hoping I'd be spared seeing one by my hockey team. Luckily, the Sabres buckled down after the early goal and the Penguins went into a defensive shell. Things got back to normal.
After some questionable calls (meaning against my team) in the first period, the refs put their whistles away for the rest of the game, which was good, because every time there was a stoppage in play the zambonis came out for ten minutes while fans were subjected to rock blocks of Supertramp. Speaking of musical disappointments, how can you have a hockey game at an NFL stadium and NOT play "The Good Old Hockey Game" OR that Souljah Boy song about ejaculating on sleeping women that everyone seems to like so much? Oversights like that are what's keeping the NHL a second-tier professional sport in this country.
The Sabres scored early in the second period to even things up, and that would be it for the scoring. I'm sure the NHL wasn't thrilled that their marquee event would feature just two regulation goals, but having old Sidney Duckface Crosby win it in a shootout probably went a long way to assuaging their frustration.
There were a lot of nice touches, which, considering the NHL's track record, I was pleasantly surprised and impressed by. They trucked in snow to place all around the outside of the boards, which furthered the whole pond hockey theme. Bringing in the Sabres' organist to play traditional hockey songs was great, too. Ditto for having flags from every NHL team on the poles that ring the top of the stadium. Nicely done, NHL.
Leading up to the game, a lot of people were asking why the NHL doesn't do this more often. After seeing the game in person, I think I've found a couple of reasons. Remember that Simpsons episode when Mexico plays Portugal and everyone in Springfield gets really excited leading up to the game and then after a minute in it's just really kind of boring and confusing?
That's sort of how the game was after that quick goal. After the initial excitement and novelty of the spectacle wore off, I realized it's really hard to watch hockey from 45 yards away, especially when you can't see all the way over the glass. Once I trained myself to look up at the giant scoreboard when the puck gets to where the boards obstructed my view, it became much easier to follow, but still not ideal.
The game on the ice was just so-so. All the ice-fixing delays to took away from the flow of the game, and the snow on the ice slowed the puck down and made breakout passes difficult, which cut down on scoring chances. There also seemed to be a fair amount of clutching and grabbing as they game went on. The refs must have figured, "If I call a penalty, that means a stoppage, which means more Supertramp, which means I'll be out in this freezing cold even longer. Fuck it, unless they slash each other across the face, I'm not calling anything."
There were a couple of other quirks in the game. The teams switched goals in the middle of the third period and overtime to ensure no team had an advantage due to the wind, which actually made a lot of sense since all the goals were scored on the same end.
At the end of the game, both teams came together at center ice to salute the fans. Even though the Rangers have cheapened this gesture by doing it every game, it was still a great moment. We stayed for a good 10 minutes after the final horn to cheer the players as they left the field and just to take in the atmosphere. There's talk of making this an annual event, but I don't think it will happen. It seems like a ton of work, and there are so many things that can go wrong. Luckily, for this game, everything came together.
(Photos by the great 289.)