Ice hockey was a game born on the frozen ponds of North America, as players young and old alike braved the winter elements to establish a sport available solely on ice.
Next week, the Binghamton Senators and Syracuse Crunch will be taking the game back to where it all began and making history as they compete in the Mirabito Outdoor Classic — the American Hockey League’s first outdoor regulation hockey game.
The game, scheduled for 1 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 20, will take place at the New York State Fairgrounds, where a state-owned horseracing track was converted into a temporary hockey venue.
“It wasn’t a ready-made ‘Hey just put a rink in here’ facility,” said Howard Dolgon, owner of the Syracuse Crunch, whose franchise led the organizational efforts for the game. “We had 200,000 tons of gravel that we had to lay down to flatten the track [to build a rink].”
Since Jan. 4, Ice Rink Events, the Texas-based company responsible for building the outdoor rink for the National Hockey League’s 2008 matchup between the Buffalo Sabres and Pittsburgh Penguins, has been working on the rink.
Dolgon added that bleachers have been built to increase the Fairgrounds’ seating capacity to over 18,000, and heaters brought into the venue will keep the locker rooms and Zambonis warm.
According to Dolgon, talks of hosting an outdoor hockey game in Syracuse began in March 2009. The initial plan called for a game at the Syracuse Chiefs’ AAA baseball stadium, but the idea never took off with local legislators. However, after New York state Sen. Charles Schumer and Gov. David Paterson were notified of the plans, they offered to house the game at the state’s facility.
“It really is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for our organization, and it could very well be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for every fan as well,” Dolgon said.
Before the ceremonial puck drop, which will be delivered by a skydiver landing from 10,000 feet, fans will be able to visit an 80-by-100-foot tent with live music, video games and food. The national anthem, scheduled to be performed by country singer/songwriter Jesse James, will be followed by an F-16 jet flyover.
Binghamton was chosen to be the Crunch’s opponent based on a variety of factors, including the team’s schedule, rivalry with Syracuse and proximity to Syracuse, said Dolgon.
“They were anxious to participate as well,” he said.
So far this season, the B-Sens have posted a 2-3 record against Syracuse. The outdoor matchup will be Binghamton’s sixth game in eight days, and the team will not have a chance to practice at the rink until warmups on game day, said head coach Don Nachbaur.
But for the B-Sens, playing hockey outdoors is nothing new.
“We played at the park all the time when I was younger,” said defenseman Brian Lee, a native of Minnesota. “You’d come home from school, go to practice, get home from practice, eat dinner and then go play at the park for three to four hours a day.”
According to Lee, the weather always had an impact on the outdoor games.
“If it was windy, it was always tougher going one way,” he said. “Or if it was snowing, you had to shovel all the time.”
Nachbaur, who played professional hockey for 15 years in the NHL and the AHL, has also had experience playing outdoors in Europe and in his hometown of Kitimat, British Columbia.
“We had good memories from the snow coming down, being so darn cold, how cold we were between periods and how we warmed up around the fireplace,” he said.
As for the wintry Syracuse conditions, Nachbaur said he hopes to keep warm by keeping his mind off of it.
“I think with the adrenaline just being involved in the game you won’t even focus on that … we’ll focus on being cold in between periods,” he added.
Tickets for the Mirabito Outdoor Classic, which range from $25 to $50, can be ordered by calling (315) 473-4444 or by visiting www.syracusecrunch.com.