For all hockey fans, 2008 is going to start off with a bang. Ralph Wilson Stadium, usually the home of the NFL's Buffalo Bills, will be transformed into a hockey rink as the Buffalo Sabres host the Pittsburgh Penguins on Jan. 1. This game has all the makings of something great for the National Hockey League. The game has been officially titled the AMP NHL Winter Classic, but is referred to as "The Ice Bowl" by most.
Envision the following: 70,000 excited fans packed into the Ralph to cheer on two of the strongest teams in the NHL. Both rosters are full of young, talented players, with the obvious star being Sidney Crosby, the newly crowned captain of the Penguins. The Sabres, despite losing former co-captains Chris Drury and Daniel Briere, still have plenty of talent to go around. Forward Thomas Vanek, who has a lot to prove after signing a 7-year, $50 million contract this past off-season, will be part of the balanced and relentless attack the Sabres have developed over the past few seasons. New leaders will need to step up on the ice, however. Replacing players like Drury and Briere will not be an easy task.
The game is going to be televised nationally on NBC. The NHL needs all the publicity is can get, since it always seems to be fighting to find a larger audience. By successfully pulling off a game of this magnitude, Commissioner Gary Bettman can focus a positive light on hockey. The new NHL emphasizes fast play, more scoring and a chance for stars to shine. It would be hard to pick two better clubs to showcase than the Penguins and Sabres for this game. After a disappointing playoff season in ratings, Bettman needs to do something to bring in more hockey fans. After a few questionable moves, such as the lockout of 2004-2005 and an agreement with Versus, a television channel not available in all areas, Bettman desperately needs to save face.
A similar game occurred in Edmonton in 2003, where the Edmonton Oilers faced off against the Montreal Canadiens. This game was a rousing success, with 2.7 million viewers tuning into the broadcast on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. The game was also shown on NBC. Predominantly due to of the success of that game, the NHL decided to try to recreate the magic one more time. This is a classic risk-reward example, with a lot to lose but also much more to gain.
For this game to succeed there needs to be high-quality play. Both of these teams have a lot of firepower, as well as excellent goaltending. This should create some dramatic situations and a spirited contest. If the players aren't motivated, however, the game could fall flat on its face. The game in Edmonton four years ago was a very close and hard fought game - fans will be hoping for the same in Buffalo. Tickets sold out for this game in thirty minutes, which is demonstrative of the fact that people are excited. As long as the players hold up their end of the bargain, this game could be a great foundation for the NHL to build upon, perhaps resulting in outdoor games as an annual event.