ORCHARD PARK, New York (Reuters) - The Pittsburgh Penguins opened the New Year with a 2-1 shootout victory over the Buffalo Sabres on Tuesday in the first outdoor NHL game played in the United States.
Snow fell gently on a capacity crowd of 71,217 at Ralph Wilson Stadium, surpassing the attendance of 57,167 when the Edmonton Oilers hosted the Montreal Canadiens in the only previous league game played outdoors in 2003.
The novelty factor aside, the big drawing card for most spectators was an opportunity to see the league's Most Valuable Player Sidney Crosby in action.
Crosby did not disappoint as he set up Colby Armstrong for Pittsburgh's opening goal before notching the shootout winner.
"This is hockey at it's best," Crosby told reporters. "It's unbelievable."
Having struggled to attract an audience in the U.S., staging the game dubbed the 'Winter Classic' on New Year's Day represented a risky move by the NHL especially as it went head-to-head with a day-long lineup of college football games.
But the gamble paid off when Crosby, the league's most marketable personality since Wayne Gretzky, shone for the television viewers in the U.S. and Canada.
Crosby brought the game to a dramatic end, racing in on Ryan Miller before snapping the puck between the Buffalo netminder's pads to clinch the win.
"Growing up I played a lot outside and when you see 70,000 people jammed into a stadium to watch a hockey game, it's a good sign," said Crosby. "In an atmosphere like this even the average fan has to be interested.
"I think this game did the job of bringing attention. Maybe we'll have other chances to do this."
Several teams now appear to be lining up for an opportunity to stage outdoor games.
"Based on the response and the inquiries we're getting from other clubs for similar activities, this obviously is something we're going to look at doing again," said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.
Some of the crowd started to make their way to the stadium before dawn, a morning of tailgating providing the perfect cure for New Year hangovers.
Souvenir kiosks did brisk business but not quite as good as one entrepreneur selling foot and hand warmers out of the trunk of his car.
Editing by Tony Jimenez