PITTSBURGH -- It wasn't the storybook ending the Robert Morris hockey team wanted, but it was a special day nonetheless.
The Pittsburgh-based university with an enrollment of about 5,000 can say they were part of the 2011 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic after their 4-3 loss Thursday to the Rochester (N.Y.) Institute of Technology at Consol Energy Center, home of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Colonials have played in Mellon Arena a few times over the years and once earlier this season at Consol, but playing in an NHL arena hasn't gotten old just yet.
"It's a huge deal. I never thought I'd get a chance to play in this arena growing up," said sophomore defenseman Brendan Jamison, a Pittsburgh native. "This is my second game here, third game at a pro arena. It gets better each time because you look forward to it for a month or so and when you're here you're awed by the arena. Growing up here, it's great."
Senior defenseman Denny Urban is also from Pittsburgh and wasn't exactly in the best of moods after the Colonials lost on a goal with 1:19 left in regulation. But even he admitted it's still a thrill to play on NHL ice.
"It's unbelievable," said Urban, who scored his first college career goal at Mellon Arena as a freshman. "Just growing up in Pittsburgh and watching all the history that's in this organization that have come through and are here now, and to be able to play on the same ice, it's a really neat experience."
Jamison and Urban had about 80 friends and family in the building Thursday, but senior forward Chris Kushneriuk, an Ottawa native, was so excited after the game that he might as well have grown up a stone's throw from the Allegheny River.
"It's unbelievable. Words can't really describe it," Kushneriuk said about playing in front of 6,957 fans, a home attendance record for RMU. "I remember when I first got here they were talking about us being able to play in the new rink. I was like, 'Yeah, yeah, we'll see if it gets put up on time.'
"The fact that we're here now, it's just great. The amount of support that we had today, too. Going out in warmup it didn't seem like there was that many people, but toward the end of the third period it was pretty packed. By far the best crowd we played in front of. Best arena as well."
The game was bittersweet for everyone involved because of the loss, but it was especially tough to swallow for Kushneriuk, who has watched his Ottawa Senators get bounced from the playoffs by the Penguins two of the past three seasons.
"I still wear my Sens jersey with pride," he said before detailing how he combated playing in a building that's a tad warmer than Island Sports Center, where the Colonials usually play.
"I'm just sweating buckets on the bench trying to figure out a way to cool myself," Kushneriuk said. "I actually cut out my pants a bit to get some ventilation. Get some airholes in there."
RMU rallied from a 2-0 deficit in the first period and a 3-2 hole early in the third period in its first game since Christmas break. Junior forward Furman South, who is from nearby Sewickley, Pa., scored the Colonials' first goal of the game but found it hard to take joy in his individual accomplishment.
"It's always awesome to play in these games," South said. "Going back to Mellon Arena, this is probably the fifth or sixth time I've played in the Pens' place, so it's always cool. It's different now as compared to Mellon Arena where you watched so many games growing up. It's still fun to play in the place where your favorite team has played your whole life.
"It's always nice to score but the best part of scoring is helping your team win, so I don't know. It's kind of bittersweet, I guess."
RMU coach Derek Schooley wasn't pleased with his team's performance following the game, but even he admitted it's something his players will cherish -- maybe not in the wake of the loss, but eventually. College teams usually play twice in two days, but RIT agreed to reschedule an early-season game to come back to Pittsburgh for Thursday's game.
"I thank the Penguins and I thank the NHL for letting us be a part of the Winter Classic," Schooley said. "I think it was a great experience. I think it's one we'll look back on in a while and remember fondly. It was something to be involved in the Winter Classic, so I thank them for coming twice. I owe them a scheduling favor down the road."
Who knows -- if the Winter Classic ever comes to New York, perhaps RIT can return the favor with a rematch at Madison Square Garden.
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