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Shoalts: Winter Classic likely to get a huge break

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- By 9 a.m. Tuesday morning, the first hardy tailgaters were set up in the parking lots of Ralph Wilson Stadium and sampling their first of many pre-game beverages.

Aside from the RVs with canopies stretched out, there was the air of a Teamsters strike about the place. Just about everyone had a steel barrel with a fire in it. Small groups of partiers were congregated around them with beers in hand.

Three hours before the 1 p.m. start, it looked like the NHL was going to get a huge break from the weather. A couple of centimeters of wet snow fell overnight but that was not a problem.

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What worried NHL ice guru Dan Craig and his crew was that some forecasts called for a mix of snow and rain or rain. But by mid-morning there was only a light snowfall and the flakes were nice and puffy as the temperature was 5C, although the wind chill made it seem a touch colder.

The wind, which was forecasted to be significant, was also co-operating. It is often a factor for the stadium's usual tenants, the Buffalo Bills of the NHL. Players from both the Buffalo Sabres and Pittsburgh Penguins said after Monday's practice said they noticed the wind more than anything, which is one reason why the NHL adopted the international rule of changing ends midway through the third period.

However, regular denizens of the press box at Ralph Wilson Stadium said weather conditions in Orchard Park can change quickly. There were no guarantees the conditions, which one NHL official called "perfect" at 10 a.m., would last until 1.

Even before the puck was dropped for the Winter Classic, most people were calling it a huge success, thanks to the sale of more than 70,000 tickets. A specific crowd number will not be known until late in the game because the league released 900 obstructed-view tickets, in the front rows where broadcast booths blocked the view, on Monday afternoon. They were all sold over the Internet in 10 minutes.

But it was a sure bet the NHL record attendance for one game, 57,167 at the 2003 Heritage Classic in Edmonton, will be broken. The world record, 74,554 for a college game between Michigan and Michigan State in 2001 at Spartan Stadium is safe because capacity at Ralph Wilson Stadium in the hockey configuration is estimated to be about 71,000.

By Tuesday morning, the league had also sold 9,200 tickets at $5 (U.S.) each to watch the game on the scoreboard video screen at HSBC Arena, the Sabres' usual home. The proceeds are going to the Sabres' charitable foundation.

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