In all of professional sports, the Outdoor Classic in hockey is perhaps the most visceral event, the one most in touch with its game’s essential DNA. Ice hockey, at its core, is an outside game, played on northern frozen ponds under crisp, winter skies.
In the town of Hershey, PA, hockey is ingrained and appreciated like no other city in the American Hockey League. Its team, the Bears, routinely leads the league in attendance. This season, the Bears are celebrating 80 seasons of play.
The essence of the game and the tradition of a town will come together this weekend. Hockey will be played in Hershey, and it will be played outdoors, as the Capital Blue Cross Outdoor Classic returns to Herhseypark Stadium for the first time since 2013.
On Friday, the Bears will begin the Pepsi Fan Fest and host the Alumni Game – featuring NHL legends such as Eric Lindros and Ray Bourque – then the main event on Saturday night, as the Bears take on the Lehigh Valley Phantoms.
“It’s pretty special when you take a look outside and see hockey in its purest form, the way a lot of people think the game was meant to be played, on a frozen pond outside,” said Bears manager of media relations and broadcast Zack Fisch, after looking over final preparations at the stadium on Monday morning. “You can just feel the history of the game, the cold on your face, no roof above, playing until it was too dark to play anymore. It’s something I’ve cherished. Knowing we’re just a couple days away, it brings up a lot of emotions, a lot of excitement.”
Despite unusually strong winds and wild fluctuations in temperatures, as Hershey has endured the same brutal weather as much of the Northeast the past few weeks, the assembly of the regulation-size rink is virtually complete in advance of Friday’s alumni game. The ice is down and the boards are up, thanks to veteran outdoor classic engineer Jim Hartnett of EIS Rinks, who was also responsible for setting up the rink in 2013, when the Outdoor Classic drew 17,311 at Hersheypark Stadium in Hershey’s 75th-anniversary season.
“The fortunate thing about this event is a lot of pieces of this arena that we’re constructing came from the outdoor [IIHF] world [junior championship] game between the U.S. and Canada in Buffalo in December,” Fisch said. “Several boards came from there. The timing of that was very convenient and helped reduced costs, as well.”
Fisch said remaining work this week includes raising the protective netting around the rink and the completion of work on handicap-accessible platforms on both sidelines. And, of course, there’s the crossing of fingers that the weather cooperates. As of Monday, the weekend forecast was in Hershey’s favor.
“The weather for the weekend is looking very good,” Fisch said. “Saturday, for the main event, has 50 degrees for a high and 30 for a low, which is really favorable for our fan base. Five years ago, it was a deep freeze, so a lot of people will be enticed when they see the weather. That’s some very good news.”
Fans attending the 2018 edition will also be treated to events that were not part of the 2013 Classic. The biggest addition to the weekend’s festivities is the alumni game, which will feature several former Hershey Bear stars, including Dean Arsene, Mitch Lamoureux, Mike McHugh, Greg Amadio, Boyd Kane, Vinnie Prospal, Graham Mink, Freddy Cassivi, Phil Sauve, and Bryan Helmer.
But perhaps the biggest names are the Philadelphia Flyers alums, including the legendary “Legion of Doom” line of Lindros, Mikael Renberg and John LeClair. Bourque, who starred for the Boston Bruins and Colorado Avalanche, has his own special connection to Hershey. His son, Chris, a 2018 U.S. Olympian, plays for the Bears.
“The biggest thing was selling it as a two-day event. This is a weekend to take part of and enjoy,” Fisch said. “[The alumni game] has driven some interest in fans that we didn’t have five years ago. Some of these guys, who were fan-favorites or Cup champions, since they retired they would probably do anything to come back and play in front of 10,000 screaming fans again in Hershey where it was such a special place in their careers.
“I think many of them are excited to lace them up one more time and have one more chance to go out there in front of the best fan base in the American Hockey League on a grand stage like this. They take it seriously. They want to win the game, too.”
And for all the pomp and circumstance, Hershey wants to win Saturday night, as well.
“It’s a special event and it’s a special hockey community here.,” Fisch said. “Hershey is a really special place. Hockey is a big part of that. This being our 80th season, hockey has always been here. It’s always been something for the fans, for the community, the workers at our companies here, as a source of entertainment and a source of pride. It’s not going away ever.”
Image courtesy Hershey Bears.
This article originally appeared in the weekly Arena Digest newsletter. Are you a subscriber? Click here to sign up for the free weekly newsletter