An Outdoor Classic After All
Few things capture the hearts and minds of hockey fans quite like an outdoor hockey game. While some may believe that classic outdoor games are too hyped up by the media, the fans attending are never disappointed in the nostalgic feeling that washes over them as they watch the sport they love being played out under an open sky.
When the NHL cancelled the Winter Classic for the 2012-2013 season, fans were left feeling disappointed and shorted of a game they craved to experience.
The AHL Hershey Bears provided a solution to that problem by hosting their own Outdoor Classic on January 20, 2012. The game was held at Hersheypark Stadium in Hershey, Penn., in front of a recorded crowd of 17,311 fans. While the boys from Hershey fell 2-1 to the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, it was still an incredible experience for all involved.
Steven Oleksy, Ryan Potulny, and Garrett Mitchell are three players for the AHL Hershey Bears and participants in the Outdoor Classic; each with a different take on the overall experience.
“The best part was the hot cocoa between periods,” Steven Oleksy joked before adding, “Just kidding!”
Garrett Mitchell said his favorite parts of the event had nothing to do with sweet chocolate drinks but were equally as fun.
“Walking out in front of 17,000 fans was pretty cool,” Mitchell said. “After the national anthem, having the fireworks going off behind the rink was pretty cool. The fireworks walking out to the ice were the best.”
In fact, the fireworks were a hit with many of the players.
“Walking through fireworks and obviously the fireworks during the anthem and all the excitement in the arena building up before the game was unbelievable,” Oleksy said.
But for the players who started the game on the ice and not the bench, the fireworks had a bit of an unpleasant after-effect.
“The fireworks might have been the best part for you guys but I had to start that game so I got nailed in the face by the fireworks because the wind was coming so bad,” said Potulny. “So that was my worst part walking out having to duck my head.”
After joking about how his favorite part of the night was Oleksy’s fight, Potulny paused for a moment and shared, “The best part is that we get to be part of Hershey and see how much support we get from the community.”
From a fan perspective, it can easily be assumed that players may have to prepare a bit differently for a professional outdoor game, but aside from a little eye black to fight the setting sun it was business as usual.
“We didn’t really prepare any differently,” Oleksy said. “We practiced out there on Saturday in order to get a feel for it but we just took in the environment. There was a lot of excitement in the town of Hershey so that got us excited for it.”
Although playing an Outdoor Classic was a first for Oleksy, it wasn’t the same story for Mitchell and Potulny.
Mitchell chimed in one his multiple outdoor game experience.
“This is my third outdoor classic,” Mitchell said. “This is three in three years for me. The first one I played in Junior. I played in the first ever Canadian outdoor junior game. It was after the Heritage Classic after the Montreal Canadiens played the Calgary Flames in Calgary.
“My junior team played the Calgary junior team. To make a long story short, the Regina Pats were the farm team for the Montreal Canadiens so we got to play. And then last year, I got to play in the one in Philadelphia in front of 46,000 [fans]. It was pretty unbelievable at the baseball field so that was pretty neat and then obviously this one this year. So a pretty good run. So this one was fun to play in Hershey with our fans on our 75th anniversary. It was pretty special. “
Potulny has also had some unique outdoor experiences.
“Last year I played in the classic and this year … I was chosen for Team USA for the World Championships and our first game was against Germany, and while it wasn’t outdoors, it was in a soccer stadium and there were 87,000 fans there,” Potulny said. “The one thing I’ll always remember about that was coming off the ice after warm-ups and my jersey already smelled like smoke because the fans could smoke in there. But all they did was cheer and yell the whole time, I felt like I was playing in a soccer game but that experience is something I’ll be able to have my entire life, being able to wear Team USA across my chest in front of that many fans.”
While the Outdoor Classic was unique, the Bears have already faced a very different season. In the months before the end of the NHL lockout, the Hershey Bears saw many familiar faces from their affiliate NHL organization of the Washington Capitals.
One common theme amongst the players was how great it was working with Capitals Head Coach Adam Oates and Assistant Coach Calle Johansson.
“It was kind of unique for us actually just because of the fact that Adam Oates and Calle Johansson were down from Washington,” said Garrett Mitchell. “And obviously with them not being able to coach, it was a little bit of a different situation for them to come down and talk to us and help us out a bit. It was good in the sense that for us we didn’t have an NHL so we could show those guys what we could do and show them that we can fit in their system.”
According to Olesky, it was nice to see the faces that should have been behind the bench in D.C. keep such a close eye on their farm team.
“Just to build on that too, like he said, obviously having Calle and Adam down here was unbelievable but not just them but to know that Washington was watching our team so closely was pretty cool,” Oleksy added. “There were guys coming down – and being so close to their organization and things like that its only a two hour ride so it was easy for a lot of people to come watch, assistant coaches, GM’s, stuff like that.
“We had to learn a whole new system too so the beginning of the year was a little rough with a whole new system and having so many new guys, new faces in the room, it took us a little time to gel but I think the second half here we’ve been starting to gel.”
Oates and Johansson were more than just observers during their time in Hershey; they helped coach their team’s prospects.
“The little things that Adam Oates would teach us and show us (were great),” Potulny said. “For me, being a little bit more of a skill guy, he showed me things I wouldn’t even think of doing … just things like where to position my hands, or receive a pass that playing seven years pro where you think you have a pretty good idea on everything, he would teach me stuff that I hadn’t even thought about, so having him here was good for us.”
A unique event, an unpredictable season, and an even more intriguing crew of players indicate Hershey is a team to watch in the American Hockey League. The brief conversation with the three players was enough to prove that there are a lot of character guys in their room, and it provides even more reasons to follow the boys in chocolate town, USA.