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Monday, December 18, 2017

Mike Emrick

Mike Milbury

Pierre McGuire

Sam Flood

CHRIS McCLOSKEY: Thank you for joining us today. As everybody knows, this is the ten-year anniversary of the Winter Classic. For today’s call, we’ve got Doc Emrick, Mike Milbury, Pierre McGuire, and our executive producer Sam Flood, to talk about not only this year’s game but to also give a little bit of insight into the history of the Winter Classic.

The Winter Classic has been responsible for seven of the top ten most-watched regular-season games on record. It is essentially the most watched regular -eason game every season here in the United States. Jon Miller, our President of Programming, played an integral role in starting the Winter Classic. If anybody wants to speak to John, feel free to reach out to me, Chris McCloskey, and we can try to set up an interview with him.

I will now turn it over for opening remarks, beginning with our executive producer Sam Flood.

SAM FLOOD: Thanks for joining us. One of our favorite events of the year is the Winter Classic. I remember ten years ago up in Buffalo, when we launched the first one of these, there was a very skeptical feel whether it was going to work and what it was going to be like. We were very fortunate that snow came in the morning of that first game and created a snow globe effect.

With Bob Costas and Mike Milbury down at ice level bringing us on the air, you knew right off the bat it was going to be special, it was going to be different. And then having Doc and Eddie down on a platform in the elements with Doc trying to read his chart with all the players’ names and numbers and stats as the colors ran together because the snow mixed with his Sharpie pen and made just a nice ink splotch.

So it’s fun to see it evolve. It was fun that first goal being scored and us taking the first replay from an airplane. Someone in the truck said, well, you can’t see the puck go in the net. I said, first time ever you’ve had a replay from an airplane in a hockey game. So a series of firsts that made it fun, made it exciting, and the perfect end to that first game with a shootout goal by the young new star of the game in Sidney Crosby. Amazing it’s ten years later and a few Stanley Cups in his hardware store. So it’s good to see that.

And now we’ll have the Rangers in the shadow of New York City, which will be a lot of fun. With that, Doc, enjoy the Big Apple.

MIKE EMRICK: Thank you. Those are wonderful memories indeed. I did get in communication with ice guru Dan Craig this morning. He was the guy that laid out that first one at Ralph Wilson Stadium, where like most football fields it’s terraced and they had to build it on plywood. Now things have become so much more sophisticated.

He reported the ice crew is working with the pipe fitters this morning, hooking up the refrigeration trailer. All of this is normal and on time. The layout will be just like it was in past baseball parks, as most of you can imagine, first to third, which tells me, if I were going, I’d be after the right field overhang seats, but I’m one that likes to sit at the end and have the game coming toward me and going away from me.

The times that I’ve been at Citi Field -- it’s entirely personal -- I’ve watched with a frown on my face because the Pirates lost, but I’ve certainly enjoyed my experience at the field, and I do like the right field overhang because it reminds me of old Tigers Stadium.

I’m not sure if the big Mets cap is going to flash in centerfield if a goal is scored, and if so, which team? Whether it will be the home team, Buffalo, the visitors, the Rangers, or both, but it will be fun seeing. I was hoping the ketchup bottle at Heinz Field might come into play for hockey, but it didn’t. So you see how easily I am entertained or distracted at these things.

It was a Sabre last year at St. Louis, a retired guy now named Brian Campbell, who was going to be in that game and was for Chicago, and he claims to have scored the most forgotten goal in Winter Classic. It was the one that tied the game with Pittsburgh ten years ago. Colby Armstrong scored at 21 seconds, that one that Sam recalled that was replayed from an airplane, that made it 1-0. And then he scored early in the second period, and then it went through overtime and into the shootout when Sid ended the game in the snow.

I will say that my favorite three out of the eight that I’ve done were Ralph Wilson Stadium, Fenway Park, and Michigan Stadium. They’re in some cases different reasons, but the common reasons for my favorite three being those were each had snow at some time or all day, each was cold, and each went to overtime or had a shootout.

On now to Mike Milbury.

MIKE MILBURY: Thanks, Doc. Yeah, I was in Buffalo for that first one too, and the Crosby shootout goal where he celebrated and tried to jump but he couldn’t quite get off the ice, but he was clearly elated. You could see, for me, that what struck was how committed the players are to this game. It’s not just another game on the schedule. It is a special event.

We include your families. The league makes it a special event. The teams make it a special event, and therefore, you get the attention of every player that’s involved in this thing. They want to be part of it. They feel left out if they’re not involved in the Winter Classic. And everybody in the course of their career wants to have at least one outdoor game.

I feel somewhat cheated that this thing started only ten years ago. It would have had to start close to half a century ago if I could have played in one. But it’s great to see the players so engaged and take it so seriously and at the same time incorporate that essence of joy of playing the game. I’m looking forward to this one at a venue that, I’m sure, will be just as good as all the other ball stadiums have been.

It’s not the ideal place to watch the game, but it’s the event that counts. It’s the celebration of the sport. I think the league’s got it down pat.

Over to you, Pierre.

PIERRE McGUIRE: Thanks, Mike. I’m going to build off of what Mike said just now about players in the league. I think, when players get into the league and establish themselves, there’s three things they want to accomplish. One is to win the Stanley Cup, two is to have the opportunity to play in a best-on-best tournament, whether that be the World Cup of Hockey or the Olympics, and the third is to play in a Winter Classic.

I have not met one player, whether before they played in a Winter Classic or after they played in a Winter Classic, that said, darn, I wish I hadn’t done that. They all relish the opportunity to play in a Winter Classic.

I’m going to take a walk down memory lane. I wasn’t at the first Winter Classic because I was calling the World Junior over in Prague in the Czech republic, and one of the things that stood out, besides the snow, was the iconic call made by my partner, longtime partner Doc Emrick when Crosby’s coming down in the shootout with the game on his stick. Think about how many people have taken that phrase and utilized it based on what Doc did at that very moment. So that’s something that stands out from a Winter Classic.

Another one is the wind-aided goal that Pavel Datsyuk scored against the Chicago Blackhawks in Wrigley Field. I was down there at ice level, and it was mind boggling how he just blew -- and I mean blew -- through the defense because the wind was at his back. And now you know why it’s so hard sometimes to hit home runs in that stadium at Wrigley Field.

And then the third one that stands out -- again, I’m going back to Chicago -- is the snow and the wind and the passion and the skill level of the Blackhawks and the Penguins at Soldier Field. Just phenomenal.

So those are the moments that really stand out. They never get old, these games. They’re not always perfect because sometimes the ice conditions break down due to the weather, but I think that’s part of what makes it so special. Everybody has to battle the elements.

Thanks, everyone, for doing this today. This question is, I guess, for Sam and by extension Doc and Pierre. Ten years must be hard to believe. Is there something that’s amazed you about the success of this January 1st game overall? And secondarily, was it a specific goal to have the Sabres be involved in this one since they were involved in the first one?

SAM FLOOD: I think the Sabres -- to start from the back end, the Sabres deserve this. They were the ones that took the risk and said they were ready to host that first Winter Classic because Jon Miller had been looking for an opportunity to do this outdoor game, and the Sabres were the club that stepped up and took the risk and turned it into a must see TV moment. I think it changed the way hockey was viewed. It made events for the regular season.

And to have an event, a moment where more people wanted to watch hockey is important, especially for a game that continues to grow, and we’ve seen the ratings move up through the ten years of this relationship with the Winter Classic. It’s fun to see the excitement when teams find out they get to play outdoors. I think that’s a really important part of it is the joy the players have. You see it in their faces.

I was watching on Saturday night in Ottawa when they were playing, and the excitement that the players had just being on that ice is special. The league has done a good job of letting a number of teams have an opportunity to play in them, but you still need the tent pole teams like the New York Rangers that will attract the big audience. So it’s great the Rangers are stepping up on this big stage and creating an event that people want to be a part of.

Just one tiny follow. The Sabres, obviously, you never know how records go, but they’re not having the best year. Is it a trepidation of just having maybe not the best teams in this game, but it’s more important to have the Sabres in as the Sabres?

SAM FLOOD: I think people, most hockey people are a little surprised the Sabres aren’t doing better than this. They’ve had some really talented players come on the roster. I’ll let the puck heads like Mike and Pierre talk about that. We didn’t expect the Sabres to be where they are right now, but in the same breath, there’s something about a big stage that makes people play a little bit better. It will create better competition. Hopefully, the Sabres step up and want to show they’re better than their record indicates.

Actually, my question was asked. I wondered about -- they’re not -- I think they’re either the worst team in the league right now or the second worst team in the league. Following up a little bit more, is that really a concern? Or do you think the game now sells itself? It doesn’t matter who plays in it.

MIKE MILBURY: I think it’s almost irrelevant now. I think Sam put it right that these players are going to play on a big stage in front of a crowd as big as they’ve ever played before. I think they will be extraordinarily motivated. I think, despite the fact they’ve stumbled along, the Sabres will rise to the occasion.

And as somebody who really grew up playing outside, it’s hard for me to describe the excitement you feel on a pond, on a river, and now even more so, on a homemade rink in the middle of a stadium that will seat 50,000 or 60,000, however many thousands of people. There’s just a new level of adrenaline that they’ll hit.

I think all bets are off in these games as to who’s going to win them. I think there will be a level of intensity from the Sabres knowing that they’re playing on New Year’s Day in front of a national television audience that will get their game in gear and provide us with a kind of show that I think this day deserves.

This might be too broad of a followup, but why do you think they have been so disappointing?

PIERRE McGUIRE: I think they’re just a franchise that’s transitioning, and they’re trying to transition their roster from some older players. You saw Matt Moulson. And I think this is a great example of what Jason Botterill and Randy Sexton are trying to do there. They could have put him in Rochester in the American Hockey League. They knew he’s an older player and he’s not going to be a part of their future. So what they do is they loan him to a place that he’s really comfortable and he knows people. It shows you that they’re going to build this properly and they’re going to develop an excellent reputation. They loan him out to the Ontario Reign in the American Hockey League, where his brother-in-law plays, his other brother-in-law, Jonathan Quick, who’s a goalie for the L.A. Kings. They’re very good friends.

So it shows you they’re starting to get some organizational standards that are really positive in their rebuild. This game should be a launching point for Jack Eichel, Ryan O’Reilly, and for Rasmus Ristolainen. Those are the three young players -- along with Sammy Reinhart. I should say four young players on that team that need to be the catalyst to engineer this rebuild.

I think they’re going to be challenged by their coach as an organization to show that on a national stage, and I think this will be the perfect vehicle for those players to develop the proper branding they need going forward.

Good afternoon, guys. Thanks for doing this, as always. Doc, I wanted to stir your memory on a couple of points. How did it end up that you ended up in that low vantage point for all these starting in ’08? What was your reaction when they first said you’re not going to be up in the press box where you normally are, you’re going to be out in the elements?

MIKE EMRICK: I thought it was great for two reasons. One, if I were working a football game, I’d want the window open because you want to feel like you’re a part and you understand rather than you’re separated from the way the game is being played and what the players are going through. And second, you like to be close, and you like to be high and close if you possibly can.

That was one of the best vantage points we’ve had. A lot of times you wind up in stadiums where you’re in press boxes that are a good distance away. We have actually tried to always get down close, and that’s one of the things that Sam’s always afforded us the opportunity to do. Even though it may be inconvenient to run all of the necessary equipment down there in Ann Arbor, and we were hopeful last year of having that same location in St. Louis, but there was, as many of you remember, a cloudburst that occurred for about a solid half hour before the game. We can get wet, but getting equipment wet is not a good idea because it doesn’t function as well. So we ended up working in the press box in St. Louis. You’re a good distance away, so you do have to cheat off the monitor, which is not the best way. You can’t anticipate as well as you can with the naked eye.

But the location in Buffalo was wonderful. We did -- we were advised the day before to try plexiglass and put our notes underneath that so they didn’t run. But whenever you make entries on your scorecard, you have to take it out from underneath the plexiglass and make your entries and put it back in. So that was when the snow started to gather on the plexiglass, and as you raised it, it ran underneath. So that was that multicolored bit of drizzle that ran off of it as well as with the goals and assists and the penalties that were called -- all ran off at the same time and onto the top of the plexiglass and became sort of an entertaining mess for people.

The good thing was we had an engrossing game, and I talked to all four officials at various times after, and this points up what Mike said. In particular, Marc Joannette and Don VanMassenhoven, the referees, despite the many delays at Ralph Wilson Stadium -- and there were several, including in the overtime -- and they had to constantly be shoveling and have the Zambonis out, not one player complained all afternoon. There were delays, sure, but nobody complained. It was all a part of a collective effort to get a game in and to enjoy playing a game outdoors.

I remember one of the Penguins was following Colby Armstrong down the ramp when the fire was going off and the bagpipes were playing, and 70,000-some people were cheering, something these guys had never heard before. And it was Ryan Malone who tapped Armstrong on the shoulder and said, ‘lifetime memory here, Army. Lifetime memory here.’ And, of course, Armstrong was the one who scored 21 seconds in from Crosby and got a lifetime memory out of it.

But it was a great location. We could see everything really well. We were out in the elements, and I never minded it one bit. Now we’re even more in the elements. We’re really close, and I think our location is going to be right near the penalty box like it was in Ann Arbor and has been in several other cases.

And I thank you for the question because it’s always a favorite of mine, and it’s always fun to be right up against the glass where everything happens.

And just one other quick thing, if you would. Pierre referenced it earlier. It’s become iconic. What was the genesis of the game on his stick? How did that come to you and that sort of thing?

MIKE EMRICK: I used it actually for a game between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia in a regular season game a couple of years before because I remember I was working with John Davidson. It was a game in which Eddie Olczyk was coaching Pittsburgh. So it must have been ’05/'06, the first year that NBC had the rights, and it was still OLN at that time. I think it was a cable game we were doing, and it just -- it just was there. It was an outlet pass in overtime, and Crosby had a breakaway. There was time to think, I guess. So there was it was.

I think I’ve only used it twice, and those were the two times. If I’ve ever used it again, I can’t recall it.

There’s still hockey to be played between now and the Winter Classic, but how do you see the Rangers going into the game, especially with Mika Zibanejad likely to make his return tomorrow night?

MIKE MILBURY: It’s certainly on the right track, right? Won a couple of big games lately against a couple of pretty good teams. Boston had been red hot for the most part although they got beat by Washington in a back-to-back scenario. They had still been playing very well. The Rangers came in and took care of business after the Bruins came back, and before that, they had taken on a pretty good team in Los Angeles.

So things have been trending very well for the Rangers after what was an inauspicious start. Nobody expected them to be stumbling out of the gate, but they managed to make the corrections, and obviously the addition of Zibanejad back into the lineup is only going to help the cause.

PIERRE McGUIRE: What we’re seeing in New York now is they’re starting to develop their identity as a team. They always want to be known as a quick fast team, and with the center ice play they’re getting, especially when Mika Zibanejad comes back, that only enhances their ability to play a quicker game.

Another thing that’s led to the turnaround is the aggressive goaltending style that Henrik Lundqvist has chosen to deploy since a pretty tough start. He’s got shooters bamboozled. He was getting pretty predictable because he was sitting back in the net and guys were picking him apart. That’s not the case anymore. He’s become very unpredictable. So there’s really not a solid book on him.

But one of the things, besides playing fast and the goaltending, I think, has been the development of Brady Skjei on defense. He’s been outstanding for the Rangers. I would expect, if he can keep evolving the way he has, their team’s in pretty good stead going into the second half of the season.

Pierre, you’re in between the benches. Can you just talk about the intensity? Is it any different during a Winter Classic game than an indoor game?

PIERRE McGUIRE: No. In fact, the intensity is pretty amped up. Last year Doc talked about being in St. Louis, which I thought was a pretty fantastic venue at the baseball stadium. The intensity level in that game was phenomenal. It was really good. There was hitting. There was nastiness there. There was bad blood between the benches. There’s a whole lot of everything going on.

I think people now know that these games matter. They’re standing points, and you’re playing in front of a national audience. So while it’s not -- again, because of the weather elements, it’s not the perfect fast track conditions every single night that you would get in the NHL, you still have to play an NHL game. One of the things that happens a lot of times, there’s a lot of board play, and that leads to a lot of rambunctious behavior.