The Southpointe Rink Rats and the Pittsburgh Predators were originally scheduled to face off in January – at an indoor ice rink.
The two teams never thought they’d end up kicking off the influx of youth hockey games that will take place over the next week at the Winter Classic Community Rink at Stage AE, the second outdoor rink built by the Penguins adjacent to Heinz Field.
“It was nice to give them an opportunity out there,” said Rink Rats coach Kevin Hart, who is also Vice President and Controller for the Penguins. “They got to enjoy the sun and have some fun a little bit after the holidays, so the boys were really, really excited.”
The rink opened for business on Friday for two full days of outdoor public skating sessions on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day that saw close to 1,300 people participate, according to director of operations Jem Chapman.RELATED: Public Skate Schedule >>
The Rink Rats and the Predators were the first two teams to play an organized hockey game on the outdoor rink, with 38 more games scheduled to take place through Jan. 2.
They got off to an 8:40 a.m. start on Sunday, with the Rink Rats topping the Predators, 7-4. Both squads play in the U-18 Bantam AA division of the Pennsylvania Amateur Hockey League (PAHL).
While it was a hard-fought league game between the two teams, it’s not the score that the players will remember.
“It was amazing, being outside with just a little bit of the snow coming down and with the breeze in your face,” said Rink Rats forward Evan Mitchell, 18. “It’s just like playing pond hockey.”
Mitchell has grown up playing pond hockey with his friends, but said this event was memorable for a number of reasons – including the fact that the outdoor rink is using the old boards from Mellon Arena.
“(The ice) was a lot smoother than the pond,” he said. “And it was a lot more fun playing with your teammates in an actual game.”
Mitchell may be used to playing outdoors, but for some players, it was their first time playing hockey in the elements.
“It was kind of weird being used to playing inside, but I got used to it,” said Rink Rats goaltender Julian Difilipplo, 17.
Difilipplo admitted that he was “frozen” in the 22-degree weather since as a goalie, he couldn’t move around to stay warm.
“I couldn’t feel my hands or feet,” he said with a wry smile. “It was a little hard just standing in the net.”RELATED: Community Rink Schedule >>
While his mother, Christina Difilipplo, was just as cold watching her son tend goal from the stands, she was excited that all of the players got to partake in such a remarkable experience.
“It’s great out here! It’s cold, but it’s really exciting,” she said. “It’s a really big thing for the team, too. They enjoy it ... It’s amazing, the city has come so far along. I think (the rink) is beautiful, it’s great for the city too. This is really great.”
The Rink Rats had known for about a month that they’d be skating on the rink in some capacity, but the Predators found out just a few days earlier that they would have the opportunity to skate outdoors after Southpointe’s original opponent bowed out.
“The Predators are close to us and we know a lot of the guys on their team,” Hart said. “I know their coach, Warren Young, who is a former Penguins player. So I just gave them a quick call, and they said ‘Sure, we’ll get the guys together.’”
The two teams were supposed to face each other in league play January, so the coaches just moved that game up.
“They were all excited when they found out a few days ago,” said Veronica Sutyak, whose son Billy plays for the Predators. She joked that while it was great the boys had a chance to play outside, she was more of an inside hockey mom.
Billy’s grandparents, Norris and Wanda Letzroth, were also in the stands watching him play, and both were thoroughly impressed by the event.
“This is great,” Norris said. “It’s super, it really is. It’s wonderful. It’s like you’re almost inside Heinz Field.”
Hart hopes his team will remember how special this event was for years to come.
“I told the boys in the room, ‘Hey, this is a special event, we’re the first ones out there,’” he said. “They’ll remember it for a while, we hope. That was the whole gist of the Penguins trying to pull this whole thing off – to make it a whole memorable week for everybody involved. Not only in the field for the game, but also outside and about. So hopefully other people get to take advantage of that as well.”RELATED: Winter Classic Fan Guide >>