HERSHEY – A stiff breeze swept across the tough ice, while a setting sun created odd shadows.
Unusual settings for hockey were also typical conditions for a midseason game outdoors.
The American Hockey League held its annual midyear event outside Sunday when the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins visited their in-state rival Hershey Bears on an ice sheet built inside a football stadium on the grounds of an amusement park.
The puck dropped around sunset, while bright lights flashed on the idle wooden roller-coaster tracks behind the stadium.
The Penguins won 2-1 at 1:19 of overtime after Paul Thompson’s shot bounced off goalie Dany Sabourin’s glove and into the net.
“I don’t think it’s something I’ll ever forget. I’ve never played an outdoor game ... and the rivalry between the two teams makes it that much better,” said Thompson, sporting a cut across the bridge of his nose after the game.
The NHL returned this weekend from a months-long lockout. But its popular Winter Classic, which was supposed to pit the Toronto Maple Leafs against the Detroit Red Wings Jan. 1 in Ann Arbor, Mich., was cancelled and wasn’t rescheduled.
The game went on for the AHL. League president David Andrews said attendance was up about 7 percent across the AHL.
“I think it’s great that the NHL is back,” Andrews said Sunday on the synthetic turf after watching pregame warm-ups on the temporary rink. “For us, we want to be in business as usual mode, and the NHL drives interest in the game.”
A glance into the sellout crowd of 17,000 provided proof – a healthy sprinkling of orange Flyers jerseys was overshadowed only by the number of hockey buffs sporting the powder-blue alternate uniforms of the in-state rival Penguins.
The game-time temperature was 43 degrees, but a stiff wind of nearly 20 mph made it feel as if it were in the low 30s. Fans bundled up under heavy winter coats, layers of sweatshirts, blankets — and pretty much anything else that could be used to stay warm.
Bonfires burning inside black metal barrels ringed the outside of the rink, in between the large, circular “Outdoor Classic” logos printed on placards set atop piles of snow.
“I’m ready. I’ve got three pants on, three shirts and two jackets,” said Maria Minelli, 30, of Gettysburg.
Minelli and Joshua Pisle, 32, of Chambersburg, had just picked up some hot chocolate to take to their plastic bleacher seats.
Pisle had on NHL Penguins gear – the powder-blue jersey of high-scoring Penguins center Evgeni Malkin.
“Glad it’s back! Glad it’s back,” Pisle said immediately after being asked if he bore any hard feelings against the NHL for the lockout.
Washington Capitals defenseman Mike Green drew loud cheers after being interviewed by a team announcer during the first intermission.
Green used to play for the Bears, Washington’s minor-league affiliate, and many fans in the stands wore maroon Bears jerseys.
“Stanley Cup!” Green exclaimed when asked about the team’s goal this year, to the delight of the chilly fans.
But Sunday was about the AHL. Unlike the NHL’s Winter Classic event organized by the league, the Bears did all the planning for the Outdoor Classic.
The team didn’t have to travel far to play its in-state rival Penguins.
Hersheypark Stadium, which is used primarily for high school football, is across a large parking lot from the Bears’ regular home, the Giant Center.
Roller coaster tracks that towered in the distance certainly made for an unusual backdrop for hockey. While the rides were closed, families also flock to the park in the winter to visit the indoor chocolate-themed attractions.
Outdoor hockey was the big draw on Sunday. This Classic was two-plus years in the making, just in time for the franchise’s 75th anniversary.
“When we planned it, we didn’t know there would be an NHL lockout,” said Bears president and general manager Doug Yingst. “It means a lot to our community. The reason we waited for two years was for our 75th anniversary.”
Hershey is also one of the most popular franchises in the league, averaging a league-high 9,500 fans per game.
The conditions made for extremely hard ice, causing pucks to bounce off sticks more than usual. Shadows from the setting sun, and then the exterior lights reflecting off the ice surface led to challenging sightlines.
But a game that participants won’t forget.
“Once you get through the feeling of disappointment,” Hershey coach Mark French said, “I think for each guy this will be a special event.”