The North Park ice-rink was transformed into a classic outdoor hockey venue for the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Hockey League’s charity series game on Thursday night between the Pine Richland Rams and North Allegheny Tigers.
Above the teams’ benches, steam rose to the sky as the players’ breaths hit the cold air. Over 1,000 fans filed into the bleachers that were set up around the rink to watch North Allegheny and Pine Richland skate to a 3-3 tie. The boisterous crowd bolstered the level of play from both of the local teams.
“The crowd was unbelievable,” North Allegheny senior Tyler Hagy said. “It made me want to win a whole lot more.”
“It was kind of special to get to skate out with all the people around, there were a lot more than a normal game,” Pine Richland sophomore Ryan Hanahan said. “It was a lot more fun to see your friends around, and it was a lot louder and a lot more emotional.”
A number of the crowd was made up of North Park locals who heard about the game and wanted to support the Susan G. Komen Foundation, which fights breast cancer and received all of the net proceeds of the game will be donated to. The majority of the fans were students from both of the local high schools who came out for the rivalry game. Pine Richland even brought its drum line to boost its fans between plays. The atmosphere was a lot like a football game.
“With the rivalry Pine Richland has with North Allegheny, it doesn’t matter if it’s football or chess or debate club or anything, the rivalry between Pine Richland and North Allegheny is great,” Pine Richland head coach Matthew Richert said.
The fans cheered and jeered the players for each and every big hit, scoring chance and spectacular save. According to North Allegheny assistant coach, Bob Holdcroft, the rivalry between the teams traces back to the 1970s.
“Back then, Pine Richland was just Richland, and North Allegheny had a very strong team, and we traditionally battled it out,” Holdcroft said.
The rivalry really took off this year when the school’s football teams met for North Allegheny’s homecoming game. North Allegheny won that game in the last few minutes of play. At one point during Thursday’s hockey game the North Allegheny cheering section started chanting the score of the football game.
The North Park ice is 16-feet wider than a regulation rink, so both teams had to make adjustments to their games. The rink is typically just used for recreational skating, so the county had to put up chain link fences around the boards instead of plexi-glass. When the skaters skidded to a stop anywhere near the boards, they sprayed snow on the fans standing nearby.
“I didn’t really like the chain fence,” Pine Richland forward Jonathan Balint said. “My glove got stuck twice, and I almost got hit out the back behind the goal.”
The black chain-link fence also proved to be challenging for the goalies, who had a hard time spotting the puck whenever it popped up above the boards.
“It was kind of hard to see the puck at some points because it would go up over the boards and you’d lose it in the dark, but we adapted throughout the game I think,” Pine Richland goalie Dan Szymanski said.
Syzmanski stopped 28 shots in the game.
“You just had to be even more focused on the puck than usual,” North Allegheny goalie Lindsay Holdcroft said.
Holdcroft, the lone female in the game, faced 27 shots in the match. She has played goalie for eight years, and was a key factor in keeping North Allegheny in the game.
“I’m not surprised with the way she played tonight,” North Allegheny head coach Jim Black said. “She’s played extremely well all season long; she’s made some incredible saves and kept us in the game when we’ve had breakdowns.”
The first ever PIHL Outdoor Charity game was played last year on Feb. 28 between longtime rivals Bethel Park and Mt. Lebanon at the South Park Ice Rink. The game raised $8,000 for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation International. The idea came from Bethel Park head coach Jim McVay after he attended the NHL’s 2008 Winter Classic at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
“I was on my back from the Winter Classic last year when the Penguins played the Sabres and I thought, ‘we should do this with the kids,’” McVay said. “I had the idea initially, but I never pictured it to be this big.”
Part of the reason the PIHL decided to play the game last year, and continue the tradition this year, is because it harkens back to the early tradition of hockey.
“It goes back to the root of the sport, based on playing on frozen ponds,” PIHL Commissioner Ed Sam said. “It’s keeping the tradition of the game alive by playing outside. The game began with playing on frozen lakes, and on frozen ponds in backyards. Making an outdoor facility makes it a great event and makes it exciting for all of the players.”
The Charity Series will feature two more games between Pittsburgh area high school teams to be played at the South Park rink on Feb. 5 and Feb 18. All proceeds from the South Park games will go to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation International.
The series gives the players a unique chance to play an outdoor game and it provides a way for the local community to support both the Susan G. Komen Foundation and the JDRF. It also gave people like Keith Conlon and Jerry Sapp, North Park locals, a chance to support high school hockey. Sapp heard about the game on Fox Sports Net, and Conlon, a Penguins’ season ticket holder, heard about the outdoor charity series at a recent Penguins' game.
“It’s the way hockey is supposed to be played.” Conlon said. “It’s great hockey, they’re not getting paid but they’re working hard.”
”I hope they have another outdoor game here next year,” Sapp said. “It’s a beautiful night for hockey.”