Sure, it wasn’t shorts and t-shirt weather, but for the 40 players and 11,015 fans at Frontier Field, it didn’t matter as the AHL returned outdoors last Friday night in the Rochester Area Honda Dealers Frozen Frontier Presented by Labatt Blue.
“It was a great experience, first and foremost,” Amerks’ captain Mark Ellis said after the game. “Besides the game. The atmosphere, playing at home, being outside like this is second to none.”
“What a game,” an elated coach Rochester Chadd Cassidy agreed.
“Unbelievable,” Goal scorer Phil Verone added. “It’s something we’ll never forget.”
Now, a week later, many are already calling it the best outdoor event hockey has put on. The game itself didn’t disappoint, as the Rochester Americans took the 5-4 win over the Lake Erie Monsters in a very fitting shootout.
“Going out of the tunnel was pretty special and pretty cool to play,” Amerks’ goaltender Matt Hackett said. “I may never get another opportunity in my life to play outside.”
The game was like a commercial for Buffalo Wild Wings, as with just one tenth of a second left in the third period, Lake Erie tied the game with a prayer, setting up a scoreless overtime and six-round shootout.
The event started with 20 degree weather and some light snow during warmups. Most fans had not taken their seats yet, but the excitement was visible in those that were. Many of the fans were acting like kids, enjoying a cold adult beverage while moving their arms and legs to stay warm. Still, most fans were smiling from the moment they sat down (or stood up, as most did for a mjaority of the game).
Very close to face-off time, the tempature dipped down to 18 degrees, where it remained the rest of the night. Most of the seats were filled, with other fans walking through the concourse.
“Sure it was cold,” Elllis said “But when the adrenaline’s pumping and puck’s dropped, you really don’t feel the elements.”
“It was a little cold,” Verone added.
“I’m just trying to keep warm, skating to the corner nonstop,” Hackett agreed. “Seeing all the fans go nuts…they’re all bundled up. It’s different but it was a great time.”
“The atmosphere was great,” Lake Erie head coach Dean Chynoweth said. “The conditions ended up being better than we anticipated.”
Players, coaches, spectators, and media were buzzing on December 13, along with the other days of the week and a half long event that will conclude at a much warmer Frontier Field on Sunday (it is expected to be 51 degrees and rainy for the high school games scheduled.)
The game started with excitement, as Derek Roy and Mitchell Heard battled it out in the game’s lone fisticuffs matchup just 2:05 into the opening frame. Roy riled up the crowd as he skated into the open air penalty box.
This game was different, but in many ways it was the same. The same as the players grew up playing. The same as it was two of the AHL’s longest standing rivals playing in a crucial divisional match. The same in that at the end of the night, one of these two teams would be skating away into the clubhouse (I’m using the baseball term for effect!) with two points.
Ellis fittingly opened the scoring up with a goal, his fifth of the year, 3:36 into the opening period. The already amped up crowd quickly was on cloud nine. However, consecutive penalties and the ensuing powerplays, led to two quick goals for Lake Erie; within a minute of each other (Mark Oliver’s fifth at 10:34 and Matt Hunwick’s fourth at 11:39) sending the crowd into a deep freeze. The teams went into the locker room with a 2-1 Monsters lead.
While the fans warmed up in the concession areas (hot chocolate and chili were the order of the night, but beer was also a hot seller)and team store, Rochester had to figure out how to get the wind knocked back into their sails. They couldn’t lose to their rivals in an outdoor game they were hosting!
It took half the period, but the Monsters’ increased their lead to two as Garrett Meurs scored his third of the year at 9:02. It was going to take a monumental comeback for Rochester to get the two points they coveted.
“We kind of loked down at each other and said we’ve ogtta figure it out,” Verone said.
Somehow, the Amerks managed to tie the game in the second half of the period. First, Jerome Gautheir-Leduc scored at 14:57. Then Varone evened things up at 17:09. Going into the second intermission, it was Lake Erie that had some thinking to do. How do they keep it tied? How do they get momentum back?
“At the end of the day every time we kept talking about simplifing the game,” Chynoweth said. “The ice is different, the puck moves slower. All of that kicks in once you get into the earlier mid part of the game”
Rochester kept the pedal to the metal to start the third, and it paid off early, as the unlikeliness of goal scores appeared. Colton Gillies scored his second of the year at 3:07, sending the crowd into a frenzy.
The rest of the period, fans danced and screamed. Some say it was because of their excitement. Others claim they were just cold and needed to move their bodies to stay warm. Nearly 3 hours into a game with the temperature holding steady at 18 degrees, either explanation seems logical. Everyone was ready to cheer for a victory until a very late interference call (19:05) on American’s defenseman Chad Ruhwedel.
The game was nearly over. In fact, if you ask most everyone, it was over. With one-tenth of a second left, Hunwick was credited with his fifth goal of the season and second of the night, sending the game to overtime and eventually a shootout. Groans were heard among the fans, many of whom just wanted warmth.
“I knew the clock was ticking down and we had a couple of chances before that,” Chynoweth said. “I couldn’t see whether it went in. When they were raising their hands you knew it went in…we didn’t hear the horn, we didn’t see the green light go on. We saw the red light go on.”
In all honesty, the game couldn’t have ended better. It took six shootout rounds, with Lake Erie scoring in two of their first three chances. In true Frozen Frontier fashion, however, Rochester scored three unanswered to cap off the game with non other than Ellis clinching the victory and sending the fans home happy.
“It kind of reminds you of the [Penguins-Sabres] one a couple of years ago,” Verone added. “it’s fitting for [Ellis] to seal the deal for us too.
“It’s different. It was a different game, different feeling out there. Obviously it’s something all 40 of us have to go through.”
“It’s something that will be [a] great memory,” Chynoweth reminiced. “It’s something you will cherish and having played or coached in it, it’s a good experience. It’s the history of the game and how everybody started playing with the old outdoor rinks around the lakes.”
Some of the fans may still be thawing out, but they will never forget what some might call the greatest outdoor game in AHL history. At least for now.