While hockey fans may not completely have lost interest in their NHL teams, they have lost this year’s Winter Classic, the outdoor hockey extravaganza that takes place every New Year’s Day. But in Williamsport, Pa., players and fans alike are getting their fill of hockey in the great outdoors.
A Perfect Place To Move … With Just One Thing Missing
“Novelty meets necessity” could well be the theme for this year’s Williamsport Outlaws. Last summer, fresh off their championship in the fledgling Federal Hockey League, the Outlaws fled their New Jersey birthplace, where they were constantly competing for fans with the NHL’s Devils and Rangers, and a host of other attractions in the New York City area. Outlaws coach and president Chris Firriolo says that this city in central Pennsylvania was an ideal landing place, with one exception.
To make up for that notable omission, the city hired the same company that builds the outdoor rinks in various cities for the NHL’s Winter Classic, held on New Year’s Day every year since 2008, except this year. The new rink for the minor-league Outlaws covers the infield of the local ballpark that’s home to the Single-A Williamsport Crosscutters baseball team.
On the night of October 24, with the temperature at 76 degrees and almost 4000 fans in the stands, crosscutting gave way to cross-checking. The Outlaws began an odyssey to become the first professional hockey team to play an entire home season outdoors.
Baby, It’s Cold Outside
On an early January night, the thermometer hovered in the low teens. Barely a hundred children and adults — bundled in outerwear and clutching cups of coffee and hot chocolate in mittened hands — sat on metal benches in the otherwise snow-covered ballpark.Not that burly retiree Stu Seitzer minded. He had already been to five Outlaws home games.
“Yeah, I ice fish. I’m an ice fisherman, so it’s not a big deal to me,” Seitzer said. ”What’s the difference sitting here or on a slab of ice, fishing? I have a ton of clothes, so there’s no reason for me to be cold.”
In the seats facing the far end of the rink, a half-dozen season ticket holders — calling themselves the “Third Base Crew” and each holding a cold beer — took turns rooting for the Outlaws and banging on the backs of their metal benches. Scott Rider said they even tailgate on game nights.
“I’ll miss it when it’s not outdoors, yeah,” Rider said. “There’s a camaraderie of the core that’s here, albeit however small it is, that like to come up here. And we get dressed for it and we enjoy being here. We eat cold pizza in the parking lot before the game. By the time we get done with the damned thing it’s frozen.”
Neither rain, snow, nor dark of night stay these hockey players from their appointed shifts, although one game was called last month on account of slush. So far, the second-place Outlaws have won almost 75 percent of their home games. Forward Martin Moucha said Williamsport’s unique venue gives his team a distinct advantage — but at a cost.
“If you play one game, that’s a different story,” Moucha said. ”But being here for practice early in the morning at 8, 9 o’clock when it’s like in the teens, eight, nine degrees – it kind of wears out on your body. But we got used to it, and luckily we’re winning at home so it’s fun.”
Fellow forward and 11-year veteran Anthony Battaglia took a more nostalgic view of the proceedings.
“You don’t play many games outdoors once you get older,” Battaglia said. ”It brings you back to when you were a little kid and you were playing on the pond. So it’s been a really cool experience bringing me back to growing up.”
Next fall, the Outlaws will move indoors to a new civic center currently under construction. After their last outdoor home game on January 21, they’ll head to the warmer confines of opposing arenas for the final seven weeks of the regular season. The Federal Hockey League playoffs begin — indoors — on March 11.