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Syracuse poised to set American attendance mark

by Kinsey Janke / NHL.com

The number 28,138 is an important one in the world of professional hockey.

On April 23, 1996, the fans who filled the building now known as Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla., to watch the Philadelphia Flyers and Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals set a record for the largest indoor crowd ever to see a professional hockey game in the United States.

On Saturday that record likely will be eclipsed by the Lightning's American Hockey League affiliate, the Syracuse Crunch, when they play their in-state rival, the Utica Comets, inside Carrier Dome in Syracuse, N.Y.

Carrier Dome is the largest domed stadium on any college campus, with a football capacity of 49,262. The 35,446 fans who watched the Syracuse men's basketball team defeat Duke University on Feb. 1 set an NCAA men's basketball on-campus attendance record.

Billed as the Toyota Frozen Dome Classic, the Syracuse-Utica game will be the first time hockey has been played inside the building.

The record for the largest indoor crowd ever to see a professional hockey game in the United States may be broken Saturday at the Carrier Dome. (Courtesy: Scott Thomas)

The record for the largest indoor crowd ever to
see a professional hockey game in the United
States may be broken Saturday at the Carrier
Dome.
Photo: Scott Thomas (Click to enlarge)

"After having a successful game outdoors, the next progression for us in our market was to go where no hockey player has ever gone before," Crunch owner Howard Dolgon said. "The chance to be the first hockey game in the Dome, and strive to break not only the AHL record but the U.S. professional indoor record, that really drove us to move ahead with this."

That successful outdoor game was held in 2010 at the New York State Fairgrounds in Syracuse and was the first of its kind in the AHL. On a chilly February afternoon in Central New York, a crowd of 21,508 packed the Fairgrounds to see the Crunch beat the Binghamton Senators 2-1. At the time it was the largest crowd ever for an American Hockey League game; the record has since been surpassed by a game between the Adirondack Phantoms and Hershey Bears in Philadelphia on Jan. 6, 2012 that drew 45,653.

"It was a real cold day but the fans came," said Syracuse forward Mike Blunden, a member of the Crunch from 2008-10 who has returned after signing with Tampa Bay this summer. "They were loud, rowdy and into the game. It was just an unbelievable atmosphere and a lot of fun to play in."

Hockey is woven into the lifeblood of the Syracuse community; the Syracuse Stars won the first Calder Cup championship in 1937. The Frozen Dome Classic idea was an instant hit, taking the sport the city loves so dearly and placing it inside the building that houses memories built into the city’s core.

"I've seen some pretty wild crowds there for basketball and football games, but to see a wild crowd there on Saturday for a hockey game is going to be something new and something pretty special," Utica forward Michael Zalewski said.

Zalewski is no stranger to the Dome. The 22-year-old grew up outside in New Hartford, N.Y., about 50 miles east of Syracuse. That adds an extra layer of excitement for Zalewski that he hasn't yet been able to process.

"From growing up playing youth hockey in Syracuse to now go play in that game for the city of Utica, I think it's something I won't really be able to put words on until it happens," he said. "To have this many fans inside the Dome for a hockey game … it's not something you see very often."

Blunden is a Toronto native, but his level of awe at the premise of a game like this equals Zalewski's.

"It's going to be unbelievable," he said. "I've been looking at the pictures of how the rink is coming along and it's looking great. I'm looking forward to Saturday."

"This market mobilizes when it's challenged to do something big and we will be breaking the indoor record come Saturday," Dolgon said. "This record will fall. There's no question. It has been bananas here."

In addition to the AHL headliner Saturday, four other hockey games will be taking place on the Dome ice. The building's backcourt will feature a Hockey Hall of Fame exhibit, including interactive games, a Legends of Hockey exhibit, and a display featuring the Calder, Conn Smythe, Lady Byng and Art Ross trophies.

Former Crunch fan favorites Zenon Konopka and Jon Mirasty will be returning to Syracuse, as well as Hockey Hall of Fame member Glenn Anderson, former Syracuse and New York Giants running back Joe Morris, and former Syracuse and NBA legend Derrick Coleman.

In the multitude of articles written about the Frozen Dome Classic in recent months, one phrase has stuck out among the rest: Pound-for-pound. Dolgon has tied the three words into the psyche of the game, promising to deliver to the city an event like no other.

"For a market our size to have two records in attendance gives us distinction as being the best pound-for-pound sports city in America," Dolgon said. "We think it's a very fair statement to make, and it's well-earned."

For those who live in the area, the Dome is iconic. The Crunch will continue to add to Syracuse history when they take the ice Saturday.

"So many awesome moments have happened there and it's just such a cool building," Zalewski said. "The fans there for Syracuse have just always been so amazing and the building gets so loud. I think to see how loud it gets for the game on Saturday is definitely going to be my new favorite moment in the Dome."

The Toyota Frozen Dome Classic can be seen on AHL Live Saturday at 7 pm ET, and will be replayed on NHL Network (U.S.) on Sunday at 1 pm ET. For the latest news, scores and stats from around the American Hockey League, visit theahl.com.

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