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Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2007

MONTREAL - Awesome. Exciting. Pretty cool.

Those were words some Penguins players used to describe a chance to play outside.

Let it snow• Not quite.

The NHL's worst-kept secret was revealed Monday when the league officially announced an outdoor game between the Penguins and Buffalo Sabres, scheduled for 1 p.m. Jan. 1, 2008, at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, N.Y.

Many of the Penguins' players who figure to play in the AMP Energy NHL Winter Classic -- considerably fewer than the 41 who made the trip to Montreal for two exhibition games -- will get a rare chance to recapture their youth on New Year's Day.

"We missed out on a lot of that stuff because we played (organized hockey)," right wing Colby Armstrong said. "But when we were kids, we played on outdoor rinks all the time. This will be fun."

Armstrong shared the sentiment of most teammates when he said ice conditions will not be a concern. The outdoor game will be held at a stadium used by the NFL's Bills. An artificial rink will be constructed days before the game, and both participating teams will get a chance to practice on it the day before the event.

Staying warm on what could be a cold afternoon will be players' great concern, said Penguins right wing Petr Sykora. He participated in several outdoor exhibition games in Switzerland while with Russian Elite League club Magnitogorsk during the NHL lockout season in 2004-05.

"I had a sore throat for about three weeks later, and I was wearing a couple of turtlenecks," Sykora said. "It was really cold -- minus-7 or something crazy. It was a manufactured rink. It had a roof, but there were no walls, and it started snowing. The wind was blowing, so you were skating into the wind.

"You did not really think about (the weather conditions), though. You went through the same routine. It did not bother me at all."

According to the National Weather Service, last January was among the mildest in Buffalo's recent history -- with New Year's Day temperatures in the 50s. However, history shows that the turn of a new year in western New York is often accompanied by blistering winds and sizeable snowfalls.

"I know all too well that the weather in Buffalo that time of year is unpredictable," said defenseman Brooks Orpik, whose parents live in Buffalo. "It could be warm, or there could be three feet of snow."

The NHL has not staged an outdoor game since the Heritage Classic on Nov. 22, 2003 -- a game in Edmonton between the Oilers and Montreal Canadiens that was played in front of 57,167.

Right wing Georges Laraque was part of the Oilers squad that frigid day. He described that outdoor game as "almost comical."

"It was totally different, it was so cold," Laraque said. "Guys did not hit. They could not make moves. Eventually everybody was just dumping the puck. It was too cold. And some guys were wearing (caps) under their helmets. They almost could not see.

"But mostly it was awesome to be part of."

The Heritage Classic went largely ignored in the United States, where it was not televised live. NBC will air the NHL Winter Classic, banking that the uniqueness of the event and the draw of Penguins' captain Sidney Crosby will be enough to lure viewers.

Finding fans to fill Ralph Wilson Stadium's 73,000-plus seats should not be a problem.

"I think they will come close to selling it out," Orpik said. "The Sabres have a great fan base. You get into that area of the country, and it is pretty evident that Sabres fans cannot get enough of their team, so I am sure there will be a lot of people in that stadium.

"And, it is not that far of a drive from Pittsburgh, so I am sure there will be a lot of our fans, too."

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