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Shining day for AHL as outdoor game a success

by Lindsay Kramer
American Hockey League president Dave Andrews had a couple of thoughts racing through his mind Saturday morning as he sat locked in traffic on Route 690 in Syracuse, N.Y.

On the one hand, Andrews was growing a little impatient that a 15-minute ride under normal circumstances was taking almost 90.

On the bright side, he was delighted that the event he was heading to -- the AHL's first-ever outdoor game -- was drawing so many people.

"It was exciting in some respects," Andrews said. "In other respects, I was wondering what the holdup was."

The patience paid off for Andrews and virtually everyone else who crammed themselves into the New York State Fairgrounds to watch the Syracuse Crunch edge the Binghamton Senators 2-1 in the historic contest.

The turnstiles whirred to the tune of a paid crowd of 21,508, the most to watch a single game in the 74-year history of the league. It was a day that hit its mark almost perfectly from start to finish, from a skydiver's center-ice landing to ideal conditions to a taut game whose result exhilarated the hometown fans.

"The start was goose bumps," Crunch assistant Trent Cull told The Syracuse Post-Standard newspaper. "The finish was goose bumps. And everything in between was pretty great, too. There was no way anybody could have thought this day was going to be that extreme. No way. That was huge out there and it didn't matter if it was the AHL or whatever. I don't think anyone could have anticipated what we saw today. And we won and got two points -- which was the icing."

The cake as a whole was pretty sweet for anyone who likes to see risks pay off for the betterment of the sport.

The Crunch decided only in late November to make a push for the game, and its Feb. 20 target date left not a second to spare for planning. With overtures for use of the Syracuse Chiefs' baseball park scuttled, Syracuse owner Howard Dolgon opted for the less-than-perfect dirt racing track in front of the Fairgrounds' grandstand.

The original cost of the event was targeted at about $900,000-$1 million, a bill offset by strong sponsorship. Still, the Crunch's portion started at about $500,000 and grew from there. Similar expenses scared off other AHL cities which explored an outdoor game; Dolgon plunged ahead.

"This was a huge risk," Andrews said. "I think Howard has a lot of vision. He likes a challenge."

The game landed on a national stage when the NHL Network carried it to a pro hockey audience going through withdrawal because of the NHL's Olympic hiatus.

"It's very special for the city of Syracuse, the Syracuse Crunch, the players," said former Buffalo Sabre Danny Gare, an announcer on the game. "This is something that all the people who have done it should be proud of. It says a lot about the organization here."

Dolgon turned it into a New York State-themed event, bringing in former Crunchers Dan Smith and J.F. Labbe as well as ex-Islander Bobby Nystrom and former Sabre Rob Ray. The 174th Fighter Wing New York Air National Guard rattled the rafters with a fly-by before the faceoff.

"Those (jets) coming over, I had goose bumps," said Syracuse forward Alexandre Picard, who tallied a goal. "I wish we could do that every game."

Dolgon rarely does anything in a small way, and the ceremonial first puck couldn't just be yanked out of a pocket and handed to a celebrity. Instead, parachutist Ray Maynard sprung out of a plane at an altitude of about 2,500 feet, disappeared on the horizon and then in a flash hovered right above the rink.

The necks of players on both benches craned as they searched to find him and then followed his path to a landing just outside the center circle. The crowd erupted and the players tapped their sticks on the ice.

"He went really far left. I thought he was going to miss it," Picard said. "But it was pretty cool. Even if he missed the target a little bit, he deserves a lot of credit."

The real charm of the game was the way it combined a big-event aura with a backyard pond hockey type of feel. Both teams warmed up with a soccer ball drill, right in the middle of curious fans an arm's-length away. To enter and exit the rink, players walked on a path that cut through the heart of bleachers close enough for flicked-off sweat to splash into a cup of hot chocolate.

A mild day -- at least by Syracuse terms -- featuring temperatures in the mid-30s made frivolity comfortable. Fans wandered around ice sculpture displays, ducked in and out of fun zones and generally just took in the spectacle. Many children, foregoing the play of the pros for some goofing off of their own, slid down snow banks and tossed snowballs.

And when everyone put their voices together the din of the enormous gathering somehow enhanced the homey feel.

"Just standing behind the bench, it was unbelievable. It's hard to describe," Crunch coach Ross Yates said.

"I've never experienced anything like that. It was a little taste of what it feels like to play college football out there today," said Crunch defenseman David Liffiton, who potted the game-winner in the second.

Since it was the team that escaped with two points, the narrow perspective could be that the Crunch won. After a long wait to get to the game, Andrews had a different perspective.

"For me, there are certain events that you have a strong feeling about emotionally, that (say) you've come a long way as a league," he said. "Today is right there with any of those things. Look at the crowd today. The way it came off made you proud to be a part of the league. It was so good. I can't describe it, really."

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