AHL Outdoor Classic gets warm reviews on a chilly night

The sun sets over Hersheypark Stadium as the AHL Outdoor Classic gets underway on January 20. (Tim Kolupanowich/CM)

The sun sets over Hersheypark Stadium as the AHL Outdoor Classic gets underway on January 20. (Tim Kolupanowich/CM)

By: Tim Kolupanowich

@TimKolupan_

The ending may not have been as sweet as the ones you would normally find in Chocolatetown, USA, but the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins’ 2-1 overtime defeat of the Hershey Bears was fast-paced, physical affair between these two rivals.

This was the only professional outdoor game this season and while the 17,311 on hand doesn’t hold a candle to the 110,000-plus that would have packed Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor to watch the Red Wings host the Maple Leafs, there was plenty of excitement and enthusiasm throughout the crowd. Braving a persistent breeze of 15-20 mph and a temperature that steadily dropped from 39 degrees at puck drop to 30 at the conclusion of overtime, fans would have to wait until there was 4:20 remaining in the second period for Tomas Kundratek to open the scoring on a one-timer from the slot set up by Jeff Taffe and Jon DiSalvatore.

The Penguins would tie it just under eight minutes into the third period on a slapshot from the left circle from Riley Holzapfel assisted by Paul Thompson and Zach Sill which would set up an overtime that fortunately ended quickly for the shivering fans as Thompson was sent in on a breakaway by Jayson Menga and Joey Mormina and scored on the only shot of the extra frame.

Sometimes fighting for two points means literally fighting for two points. (Tim Kolupanowich/CM)

Sometimes fighting for two points means literally fighting for two points. (Tim Kolupanowich/CM)

This may be a special event every year, but it’s still a regular season game and two points on the line and an attempt to climb the standings meant plenty of big hit to entertain the fans and the punishing contest was highlighted by a solid tilt between the Bears’ Steve Oleksy and the Pens’ Dominik Uher.

Washington Capitals defenseman Mike Green was on hand to drop the ceremonial faceoff . He played 68 games for the Bears between 2005-06 and ’06-07, recording 11 goals and 39 assists for 50 points to go along with 105 PIM and a plus-9 rating. He helped the Bears win the Calder Cup in 2006, putting up three goals and 15 assists for 18 points and 30 PIM in 21 playoff games.

Though the NHL’s return means a few of the game’s brightest young stars were taken away from the AHL, this event was something the American League had this season the NHL didn’t and the effects of the lockout, and the return of the world’s greatest league, were both positive. From the AHL’s official website:

League president David Andrews said attendance was up about 7 percent across the AHL (this season).

“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.”

Though Hershey is primarily known to many for chocolate, it is also one of the best hockey cities in the American League and Hershey Park in the background added a unique element to the night’s festivities. From AHL’s official website:

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.

The Bears are one of the most popular and successful franchises, winning the Calder Cup 11 times in their history, including three of the past seven seasons, more than any other team. The Penguins meanwhile have only been in the league since the 1999-2000 season and have reached the final three times, losing every time.

The Penguins’ next tilt is at home on January 23 against the St. John’s Ice Caps and the Bears play next on Friday, January 25 at home also against the Ice Caps.

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