Despite the outdoor hockey fever that has descended over Pittsburgh during the last few years, the final game of the PIHL Outdoor Classic was unique.
Because although one or both of the high school teams in each of the series' preceding three matches had participated in the event before, Friday night marked the first outdoor hockey experience for both Upper St. Clair and Baldwin Whitehall.
It was one to remember for both teams.RELATED: Players Skate for a Cure in Snowy South Park >>
The Panthers emerged with a 12-2 victory over the Highlanders at South Park Ice Rink, powered by a hat trick from senior forward Justin Selep and two-goal efforts from sophomore forwards Robbie Markwell and Luke Stork. Senior forward Neil Isler tallied both Highlanders goals, one of them being a penalty shot score.
“Stepping on the ice, it felt so real, so awesome,” Selep said, whose team improved to 9-5 with the win. “There’s no better experience.”
Playing under the falling snow had Selep feeling like a Penguin, circa the 2008 NHL Winter Classic.
“Watching it in Buffalo a couple years ago and seeing Sidney Crosby
score in the snow, it made me feel like him,” Selep said, jokingly adding, “But I think he has a little more skill than I do.”
Despite a tough loss, Baldwin Whitehall coach Kevin Becker said his team focused on the positives that come from such an event.
After all, it’s not every day a kid gets to play hockey in its purest form – under falling snow and in the brisk winter air – in front of friends and family.RELATED: Second Game of Friday's PIHL Outdoor Classic Doubleheader a Thrill Despite the Chill >>
“The kids enjoyed it, it’s something they never get to do,” Becker said. “They got to play outside and see what it was like ... And for most of these kids, this is the most people they’ll ever play in front of in their whole careers ... The fact that we had maybe 60 to 100 kids come out and watch them play, it was a great atmosphere.”
The PIHL Outdoor Series’ final game benefitted the Paul Sciullo II Scholarship. The parents of the late Officer Sciullo, who was killed in the line of duty in April 2009, dropped the puck for the ceremonial faceoff.
In a keen twist, the Highlanders’ former team captain who graduated last year, Nick Jaczesko, was awarded the first-ever Paul Sciullo II Scholarship.
“It was kind of neat that we got to play for this specific charity, because we had the first annual winner of the award,” Becker said.
The heavy snowfall, which fell hard to start the game, alleviated by the end of the second period. A Zamboni cut between the middle and final frames left the ice clean and clear.
So unlike Crosby’s game-deciding shootout goal against Buffalo’s Ryan Miller back in the inaugural NHL Winter Classic that inspired this outdoor series, where the Penguins captain had to navigate through piles of snow to find the back of the net, Isler had a clear path to the net for his penalty shot.
Although it would have been great to emulate Crosby, Isler was just hoping to make a smooth trek to the net.
“(The penalty shot) was probably the most nerve-wracking thing in my life,” Isler said. “Doing that in front of all those people."RELATED: "Ziggy's" Legacy Lives On Through Outdoor Charity Game >>
It’s been a tough year for the Highlanders, whose record falls to 1-12 on the season after Friday’s loss.
But that adversity is what helped make their outdoor experience so sweet.
“Because it’s been such a tough year, this is the one thing these kids had to look forward to,” Becker said.
“So even though the outcome wasn’t what they expected, at least they can say ‘Hey, remember our senior year when we played outdoors?’ They’ll always remember this game. For each kid, it was a special moment for them. They’ll remember it the rest of their lives.”