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Posted: Thursday January 1, 2009 11:54AM; Updated: Friday January 2, 2009 9:16AM
Jim Kelley Jim Kelley >
INSIDE THE NHL

A legacy for the Winter Classic

Story Highlights

The Winter Classic is doing more than luring casual fans on New Year's Day

The rink from last year's game in Buffalo now sits in a Western NY village

The old Classic rink creates good will and buzz as a recreational centerpiece

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Kids, seniors and figureskaters now happily glide around the rink used by Sidney Crosby and the Penguins as they took on the Sabres.
Bill Wippert/Getty Images
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"Tell me, where do the children play?"
-- Cat Stevens, from his classic album Tea for Tillerman

If you take in the NHL's outdoor game today on NBC -- and from a hockey fan's perspective it really is must-see-TV -- ask yourself two questions:

When all the hoopla is over and all the talk of "the way it used to be" is spent, what's the point of all this?

And, as an aside: what happens to that outdoor rink?

Eleven-year old Sean Lauber knows the answer to the second question. From the NHL's point of view, Sean may be the answer to the first one as well.

Lauber, his brother Kiernan, and sisters Katherine and Erin will be skating on it.

The Lauber kids live in East Aurora, a small town in the heart of the snow belt just south of Orchard Park, New York, the site of the 70,000-plus seat stadium where the NFL's Buffalo Bills play and where the NHL's last New Year's Day outdoor game took place. They sat in awe in their living room, watching the local favorite Sabres play the Pittsburgh Penguins as the snow and twilight fell on the largest crowd (71,217) ever to see an NHL game in the United States, and they wished they could somehow be a part of it.

Now they are.

A civic-minded group, the Aurora Ice Association, discovered that the rink and the equipment needed to run it had simply been left behind by the NHL. It had been shuttered and stored in Western New York after the league, the fans and all the TV production people had moved on. John Cimperman, a member of the AIA and a public relations executive who once worked for the Sabres, led the group's fund-raising efforts to buy it and they installed it on a piece of land near the center of their picturesque little village.

Borrowing from the Field of Dreams concept of "if you build it, they will come," the rink -- complete with a set of outdoor lights, a warming hut (actually an old construction trailer) and a set of old boards obtained from Oswego State College -- was reconstructed. The ice-making equipment (protected by bales of hay to keep the noise down) was restarted, and Sean Lauber and his siblings, along with seeming half the townsfolk and a great many people from afar, skate on it day and night.

"It's a blast," says Sean, who along with Kiernan and Katherine, now plays organized hockey (Erin is still thinking about it). "Sidney Crosby played here and so did Ryan Miller and Thomas Vanek and all those guys."

In essence, that's what it's all about for the NHL.

For the most part, the league doesn't draw a huge fan base outside its traditional markets in Northern cities, the Great Lakes region and places like Denver, where snow and ice are not reserved just for slurpees and evening cocktails. Playing the game outdoors is, well, different -- and different seems to draw a crowd. Not just in massive stadiums usually reserved for football and baseball, but also on television where the sight of hockey outdoors in swirling snow and (sometimes) bitter cold somehow commands the attention of legions of perhaps slightly hungover sports fans who can only take so much football while recovering from being overserved.

For years -- or decades, one might argue -- the league has hoped that just seeing a game or two would create fans for the sport and that those fans would go forth and multiply, especially in areas where hockey is not a native pastime. It's worked in some places. Dallas has had an outbreak of hockey fever with youth rinks popping up all over the region. Nashville, though struggling at the gate, has made that same claim. The NHL has gained a toehold in some other markets, but the drive to convert the southern states has largely stalled.

The league needed a fresh approach, something that in a crowded sports marketplace would get people to stop and take notice. The outdoor games, a rare TV ratings success for the NHL in the U.S. in that they have drawn an audience four- and even five-times larger than a typical indoor game, have become that vehicle.

It's likely the Lauber kids would have put down their toys and interest in other sports and given hockey a chance, what with the Sabres some 25 miles away and snow and cold a daily part of their winter season. But having an outdoor rink down the road -- a rink that hockey superstars have played on -- well, that certainly didn't hurt.

The rink in East Aurora went from being a concept to a community cause with hundreds of people, many of whom don't play hockey or even skate, volunteering their time and expertise to making it a reality. Cimperman told Western New York Hockey Magazine that the AIA had been working for nearly a decade to bring ice sports and recreation to East Aurora and that having an outdoor rink with a legacy attached, hopefully, will be a springboard to building an indoor twin-sheet rink.

"The outdoor rink captured people's attention," he said. "The facility is being used by amateur hockey groups, figureskating associations, and the like. We've had interest from as far away as Rochester and Pittsburgh."

Today's schedule of events in East Aurora includes a four-on-four tourney that will go on before during and after the game in Chicago. There likely will be a pause and a few TVs set up for the game broadcast, however, especially since Blackhawks star Patrick Kane is a WNY native.

The AIA is also forming an "Original Six" senior's league that will skate on the same ice used by the pros. Adding to the big-league feel is a Zamboni from the now-closed Dallas Reunion Arena and a pair of nets that were on the ice there when the Stars played the Sabres for the Stanley Cup back in 1999.

None of that matters to the Lauber kids. They just like to skate and play outside, and do it down the street from where they live. For them, the outdoor rink, like the outdoor game they watched last year, is a dream come true.

And for the NHL?

Well, if some civic-minded group in Atlanta, South Florida, Mississippi or on the Southside of Chicago watches the game at historic Wrigley field and is inspired to do the same, they are more than welcome.

After all, once the TV trucks are gone, the licensed product has all been sold, and the players go back indoors, the hope is that a kid, maybe a Sean Lauber or his brother or sister, will become a dedicated hockey fan and then a cold day in Buffalo or Chicago (or Edmonton, where the first NHL outdoor game was played) will have brought its own rewards. And if that kid is in Dallas, Atlanta, Los Angeles or maybe even someplace where the NHL doesn't even have a team?

Well, the powers that be in the NHL won't be disappointed if he or she somehow finds a way to come in from the cold.

 
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