The ‘Wow’ Factor

Record-Setting Outdoor Game Impresses World Juniors Players, Coaches And Fans Alike

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bob Motzko peered out the window of his Buffalo hotel room and liked what he saw.

Looking across the street at the Buffalo Naval & Military Park, Motzko could tell what the day would hold in store, weather wise, by how the ensign flew from the flagstaff of the USS Little Rock that is permanently docked there.

In the days leading up to the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship, the flag stiffly flew in the arctic air that blew across Lake Erie and plunged the city into a deep freeze. But on the last Friday of 2017 the stars and stripes fell limp, indicating that it would be a great day for hockey at New Era Field.

"I keep hearing the words 'perfect conditions for an outdoor game,'" said the Austin, Minn., native who was coaching the U.S. National Junior Team for the second consecutive year. "When I was a kid 'perfect conditions' meant just putting your skates on and play. And that's all we're really hearing. We're going to have fun with it."

But the one thing Buffalo natives know all too well, those pesky lake-effect snows can appear at a moment's notice and throw a snowy curveball on outdoor activities.

Almost 10 years ago to the day, another outdoor hockey game was staged in snowy conditions and on the same field, and it forever changed the landscape of the game at home and around the world. On Jan. 1, 2008, as the falling snow created a snow globe effect, a crowd of more than 71,000 watched the Pittsburgh Penguins edge the hometown Sabres. It paved the way for the NHL Winter Classic to become an annual event, and triggered offshoot events from Toronto to Los Angeles.

Not that the elements this year bothered anyone. Not the players or their wide-eyed coach. Not the organizers, who held their collective breaths up until the puck drop. And certainly not the announced record crowd that endured long lines at the Peace Bridge linking Ontario to New York and at the gates into New Era Field.

The wait proved to be well worth it as the United States and Canada once again locked up in an epic clash that will go down in the hockey history books.

"It was a little different than a normal game," said Casey Mittlestadt, who quickly lived up to the hype as the Sabres top pick in last year's NHL Draft.

"You felt like you were back out on the pond. It made for an absolute blast."

After hosting one of the most successful World Junior tournaments in 2011, USA Hockey was handed the keys to host this year's popular holiday tournament and ultimately brought it back to the shores of Lake Erie. Working in partnership with the Sabres, USA Hockey pitched an ambitious plan to the IIHF to take a game outside with the hopes of shattering a near decade-old World Juniors attendance record.

"We sat down and thought about it, knowing there's a ton of work involved. We weighed the risks and rewards and thought it was an outstanding chance to do something unique with the IIHF," said USA Hockey's Mike Bertsch, who was instrumental in organizing the event.

Despite months of planning, there was no accounting for weather issues, ice problems or other unforeseen circumstances. A contingency plan was created to bring the game indoors to the Key Bank Center, the site for the other 30 tournament games. Figuring out how to squeeze as many of the estimated 40,000 fans inside a 19,000-seat arena was one challenge, but it was a chance they were willing to take.

Fortunately, the hockey gods once again smiled on the city of Buffalo and the ambitious organizing committee. Almost on cue, the snow returned shortly after the puck dropped, much to the delight of the fans inside the stadium and those who tuned in on the NHL Network.

But must-see-TV requires more than just pretty scenery. It needed the drama of an American come-from-behind, 4-3, shootout victory to turn it into an instant classic.

"There are certain games that come through that you don't have to say a word to your players. This is one of them," Motzko said of facing the Canadians. "You walk in the locker room and there's a little different feel. It's amped up. That's what rivalries are all about. There's just a little juice in the air. You can feel it."

After falling flat to an opportunistic Slovakian team the night before, juice was in short supply as Motzko's charges faced a quick turnaround. A loss would push the hosts farther down the Group A bracket and leave the defending champs with the prospect of a tougher opponent in the do-or-die crossover game. A victory could be the shot in the arm they'd need in their quest to do something no other American team had done: win a World Junior title on home ice.

Two days earlier, Motzko walked down the tunnel and into the frozen expanse at New Era Stadium for a midday practice. As he reached the lip of the rink, he slowly slipped off his skate guards and took a solitary lap around the pristine sheet of ice. It was one of those "wow" moments that television doesn't do justice while watching other outdoor games from the comfort of his St. Cloud, Minn., living room.

"You step out there in an NFL stadium with a hockey rink sitting there, it is pretty cool," he said. 

By the time they marched out of the tunnel to the beat of a drumline and the flash of fireworks, those "wow" moments were multiplied on game day.

"There were a whole lot of them today," Motzko said. "It was snowing, the crowd was great. It was just an unbelievable setting right with the snow and how it played out.

"I was a skeptic at first, but I love it now."

Taking a page from last year's gold-medal script, the one in which the U.S. twice rallied for a pair of two-goal deficits to win in a shootout to claim its fourth gold medal, this year's affair did not lack for drama.

Despite finding themselves in a two-goal hole heading into the second intermission, there was a sense of calm and confidence inside the U.S. locker room.

"We were all positive, trying to pump each other up. We knew it was going to be an awesome story at the end of it," said Brady Tkachuk, who joined his father, Keith, and brother, Matthew, who also won World Juniors bronze.

"When we got out there everyone was talking on the bench and was so excited. I really think that transferred over and we played a lot better with all that excitement."

Motzko's message to his troops was based on simple math.

"If we get one, we'll get two," he said.

And those two goals came quickly thanks in large part to Mittlestadt, who set up Scott Perunovich and Tkachuk to set the stage for another shootout. In the extra session, Kieffer Bellows and Tkachuk delivered, ala Troy Terry in last year's tournament, and Jake Oettinger did his best Tyler Parsons impression by turning aside all four Canadian shots.

"It wasn't your usual hockey game, but it was an unbelievable atmosphere and one of coolest games I've ever played in," said Oettinger, who turned aside 20 shots through regulation and overtime.

"I looked around a couple of times and it kind of reminded me of the Winter Classic with Pittsburgh and Buffalo with the snow coming down. It all made for a storybook game and for today's game to come down to a shootout was pretty unbelievable."

And while the U.S. title defense fell short early in the new year with a semifinal loss to Sweden, this year's squad managed to rally to earn a bronze medal with a gut-victory over the Czech Republic.

The hardware and the memories of its record-setting outdoor clash will last a lifetime for both the teenaged players and all those who braved the elements to watch a game for the ages.

With a long NHL career ahead of him, even Mittlestadt admitted that this would be a tough day to top.

"I'll be hanging with some of these guys years down the road and we'll be talking about this one for sure."

 

Issue: 
2018-02

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