HERSHEY, PA – A large sign with the Outdoor Classic Logo sits inside the Hershey Bears locker room (Kyle Mace – Sweetest Hockey on Earth)
A surreal feeling was felt walking out of Hersheypark Stadium after nearly three hours of sitting in the cold and wind.
One of the oldest and most storied AHL teams, with a rabid fanbase and trophies to back it up were walking out of Hersheypark Stadium in a stunned silence.
Moments before, Wilkes-Barre / Scranton Penguins forward Paul Thompson took an outlet pass from defenseman Joey Mormina, skated in and wristed the puck over the glove of Bears goaltender Dany Sabourin to win AHL Game #593 2-1 in overtime.
But it was more than that. It was outdoors. It was a much hyped marquee match-up. It was two points on the line in the best division in the AHL amongst two teams that do not like each other. It was a game televised locally in Hershey, in parts of Canada and on ESPN America overseas. Despite the NHL telling you that “hockey is back” it was the most unique game of the day in all of professional hockey, anywhere.
As the fireworks display lit up the Hershey skies on a cold Sunday night in January, the 17,311 that packed the Hersheypark Stadium filed out to their cars, looking to get warm.
For the Penguins fans in attendance, packed in the East Bleachers in Section 30 on the five yard line, a joyous end to a cold day. As the Penguins left the temporary ice setup they acknowledged the fans in the corner of the stadium who sat patiently all day in anticipation that their team would come out on top and come away victorious.
With the pomp and circumstance of pregame fireworks, Fan Fest, the Alumni Game the day before, the two clubs took to the ice to do battle.
No scoring in the first period. For the Penguins fans that have closely followed the team of recent, a familiar tune. Then, in the second period, ex-Penguin Jeff Taffe set up Hershey all-star defenseman Tomas Kundratek in the slot and pushed the host Bears to the front late in the second period.
For some Penguins fans in attendance, myself included, it seemed like the 1-0 lead would be too much to overcome given the setting.
But Riley Holzapfel had other plans in the third period. On a two-on-one with agitator Zach Sill, Holzapfel cranked up and zipped a shot past Sabourin. Tie game. Even footing once again. Both teams ramped up and tried to manage shots on goal, but the contest would need extra time to figure out who was going to prevail.
Finally, at 1:19 of overtime, leading Penguin goal scorer Paul Thompson took a wrist shot which won the game and sent the Penguins and the fans that traveled, home triumphant in victory.
Exuberance. Maybe a little too much on behalf of the Penguins, depending on who you talk to on the Bears side, but given the stage that the teams played on a case that it could be justified. It is not everyday that you play a professional hockey game outdoors, there is going to be the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, as the old adage goes.
Walking out, Penguins fans congratulated Penguins fans. Even some Bears fans offered a “good game” to fans in Penguins livery.
Yes, a surreal feeling for sure and one to be remembered for a long time.