Even without Winter Classic, pro hockey takes spin outside in Hershey

M. Richter. Used with permission

The Hershey Bears and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins took the outdoor ice on Sunday night, proving that hockey doesn't need the NHL to stage such an event.

HERSHEY, Pa. - While the NHL labor dispute wiped both the 2013 Winter Classic and a planned AHL outdoor game between Grand Rapids and Toronto at Comerica Park in Detroit, that didn't mean the hockey season would go by without at least one professional game played out under the elements.

Fans looking for a dose of an outdoor game could come to the southern Pennsylvania town of Hershey, a place almost as famous in hockey circles for its AHL club as it is around the world for its chocolate.

Right next to the Hershey Bears' historic former home of Hersheypark Arena - the team's first home when the team joined the AHL in 1938 - and in the shadow of the roller-coaster rides of Hersheypark itself, the Bears took on their bitter rivals from up Interstate 81 Sunday evening. The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins were the visitors in game played in a cold, stiff wind at Hersheypark Stadium on a temporary rink set up on the stadium's footballl field as dusk turned to nightfall under a starry sky.

As darkness fell, the Penguins rallied to erase a 1-0 deficit in the third period, capping the comeback win with Paul Thompson scoring on a breakaway 79 seconds into overtime to give the Pens the memorable victory.

For Thompson, it was a goal to remember.

"I don't think it's something I'll ever forget," Thompson told AP afterwards."I've never played an outdoor game ... and the rivalry between the two teams makes it that much better."

Playing outdoors is a bit of old hat for the Bears, with the team having skated in last year's Outdoor Classic at Citizen's Bank Park in Philadelphia - which also was an overtime loss for Hershey.

Despite the result for the Bears, the event outweighed the lost point in the standings.

"Once you get through the feeling of disappointment, I think each guy that participates, they will feel it is a very special event, and probably in their hockey career, ranks pretty high for them," Bears coach Mark French said.

While most outdoor games have been played at much larger stadiums and ballparks, Hersheypark Stadium seats about the same as an NHL arena. The smaller site created a different feel to the game as the lights of the roller-coasters and ferris wheel glowed beyond the stands holding the sellout crowd of 17,311.

"I think the game in Philly, if I have to compare the two venues, this one seemed to be more intimate, and the dynamics of the building were different," French said afterwards. This one, the fans didn't feel so far away, you certainly felt they were part of the action, whereas last year in Philadelphia, you almost felt like there was something else going on."

"Obviously, we got to play in one before," Hershey forward Jeff Taffe said. "It's a neat experience for the fans, not only us. ... We played a great game tonight. I think fans would have liked to see more scoring, but it's one of those things with the conditions out there."

Hershey's starting netminder Dany Sabourin backed up Marc-Andre Fleury for Pittsburgh in the original Winter Classic in 2008, in addition to playing behind Braden Holtby in the Outdoor Classic last year, but finally got a chance to play outdoors after watching a pair of games from the bench.

"It's a totally different experience," the veteran netminder said with a smile. "It was nice to play. You remember when you play outside as a kid and having fun, even through it's for two points, but it's so different, you have no choice but to think about when you were a kid and playing outside. I loved it. It was great, the experience was great, awesome ... I really enjoyed myself."

Of course, while previous outdoor games have been impacted by rain, warmth and snow, this one had two elements, a strong wind and the shadows as dusk turned into nightfall.

"The goalies probably had the biggest challenge and I thought late in the first period there seemed to be a lot of shadows, but the darker it got, the less shadows there seemed to be," French said.

"Sometime you can't really see your angle or the hashmark, so it you have to where the board is instead of the hashmark," Sabourin said. "If they shoot it high, it was tough to pick up. If they flip it, you lose it in the darkness."

And while the Winter Classic was absent from the hockey calendar this month, according to Bears broadcaster Scott Stuccio, there was a piece of the Winter Classic rink in Hershey.

"From what I understand, some of the rubber matting from that rink is here," he said. "The only outdoor game in pro hockey is in Hershey, all eyes were on it. We had this broadcast across Canada, Europe and Northern Africa, it was really some thing to be a part of ... Unfortunately, I'm 0-for-2."

The game was also the result of a long effort to bring the event to Hershey for the Bears' 75th anniversary season.

"A game and event, the whole weekend was planned before last season, talking about how long it took to put together," Stuccio said. "The big common answer to say it's like Christmas morning. It all comes together and bang, it's all finished. ... Comparing it to Philadelphia, 45,000 people dropping down to 17,000 it's a family-oriented atmosphere, to have this stadium host hockey for the first time ever, you couldn't have it any better."

And, a game the players won't soon forget.

"It was awesome, it was a great experience," Bears forward Tomas Kundratek said. "I think everyone enjoyed it."

"It was a great experience again," Sabourin said. "I've been in two of them, in Buffalo and last year in Philly. This one was great ... it's better when you win though."

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