By Dan Rosen @drosennhl / NHL.com Senior Writer–
NEW YORK — Jason Pominville’s mind immediately goes to the scene playing out in the parking lots hours before the NHL’s first Winter Classic in 2008. It gives him chills.
“Packed,” the Buffalo Sabres forward said Friday at an empty Citi Field, the home of the New York Mets and site of the 2018 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic between the Sabres and New York Rangers on Jan. 1.
“People tailgating, bonfires going, kids playing street hockey. It was just an amazing, amazing feeling, and at that point you’re like, ‘Oh, we’re going to have a good day.'”
About 10 years later, as Pominville, who was traded back to the Sabres from the Minnesota Wild on June 30, stood on the warning track between first base and the Mets dugout, memories of being one of the 38 players in the first NHL Winter Classic, the Buffalo blizzard game at Ralph Wilson Stadium on Jan. 1, 2008, came rushing back.
He thought more about the scene in the parking lots.
“It was crazy,” said Pominville, the only current Buffalo player who played in the 2008 Winter Classic. “The turnout was amazing.”
He thought about the way the Sabres and Pittsburgh Penguins were introduced and their walk to the ice, with goalies Ryan Miller (Buffalo) and Marc-Andre Fleury (Pittsburgh) leading the way, walking side by side.
“We walked out together, fireworks everywhere,” said Pominville, also the only current Sabres player who has played in an NHL outdoor game (he has played in two). “Pretty impressive.”
Pominville thought about the times he looked around and up at the 71,217 fans in Buffalo being blanketed by a blizzard, Mother Nature and NBC’s terrific camerawork making the whole thing look like a holiday hockey snow globe, the picture-perfect Western New York wintry scene.
“You’re kind of in that awe feeling all the time,” Pominville said. “The whole game you’re sitting on the bench just kind of looking around and going, ‘Oh, man, this is pretty cool.'”
He recalled a time when he thought his shot hit the crossbar but wasn’t sure because he couldn’t see the puck through the snow.
He thought about the result, a 2-1 Buffalo loss because Pittsburgh center Sidney Crosby scored the most memorable, and picturesque, NHL shootout goal since the tiebreaker was introduced in 2005.
“Obviously, we didn’t get the outcome we wanted, but for the League and everything around it, the way it ended was probably the ideal scenario,” Pominville said. “You look at what it’s become today, every team wants to be a part of this, every team wants to host this, every player wants to play in this. Now it’s a tradition.”
So he thought about that, about how far the event has come, how he and his family have watched every one of them since 2008, and how this year he should get the chance to do it all again with the Sabres.
“It was one of the first things I thought about [when I got traded back to Buffalo],” Pominville said. “Actually, one of my buddies brought it up to me, so right away I was pretty excited about it. I played in a Stadium Series in Minnesota (when the Wild played the Chicago Blackhawks in 2016), but you never think you’re going to have a chance to play in another Winter Classic. I mean, those are games that you want to be part of.”
Sabres center Jack Eichel was 11 years old when the NHL Winter Classic made its debut in Buffalo. He remembers watching Pominville in the game.
(Reprinted with permission of NHL.com) (NHL.com photo)
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“I remember it pretty well,” Eichel said. “Just sitting on the couch with my dad New Years’ Day and watching it, watching Crosby play and score the shootout winner. It was a pretty cool moment.”
Eichel then pictured himself arriving at Citi Field on Jan. 1 and the scene that will likely be unfolding in the parking lots — the tailgating, the street hockey — when the Sabres bus pulls up.
He pictured himself walking out of the Mets clubhouse (the Sabres will be the home team), up the tunnel to the home dugout, up the steps and onto the field, with more than 41,000 fans screaming, cheering, and, if Mother Nature cooperates, getting snowed on.
“Skate guards on, eye black on, in a new uniform and going out to play in the Winter Classic,” Eichel said. “It’s a long way from now, but you have chills thinking about it.”
They don’t go away.