Everything changed on New Years Day 2008. That was when Buffalo hosted the NHL's first Winter Classic. Outdoor hockey, the way it used to be, the way the sport was intended. Ralph Wilson Stadium hosted the internationally televised game between the Buffalo Sabres and Pittsburgh Penguins. It produced one of the most coveted tickets in Western New York sports history. Eric Duschnik, of Buffalo, was in that crowd of over 70,000.
"I got goose bumps. It was just something completely different. The NHL has never seen it before. They had the one Heritage Classic (2003 in Edmonton) before that, but just for the Buffalo region itself, it was a great experience, a perfect game. Unfortunately we lost. With Crosby and Miller in the shootout, that's what you wanted it to come down to."
These days Duschnik is an ice technician with Rink Specialists, the company charged with setting up the hockey rink inside of Frontier Field, where the Rochester Red Wings play baseball five months out of the year. Frozen Frontier will be a winter festival and ice hockey event unlike anything we've ever seen here before.
"We're looking at about two to two and a half weeks," says Rink Specialists field operations manager Dave Fies. "We had to level the field off first because there's a crown to the baseball stadium. We need a completely level surface so we have a sandbox. We have plywood that goes on top of the sandbox. Then we put an inch of insulation, then another layer of plywood, then a big plastic tarp, which we call our vapor barrier. It helps keep everything in place. Then we roll the big tubes and our headers out."
The company was formed in 2002 and grew as demand for their services increased to the point where Rink Specialists, even while essentially a nine person operation, is big time. They are working three ice rink projects this season. The others are at Fenway Park in Boston and Comerica Park in Detroit. Those will be recreational rinks. Since this will get professional exposure from the Rochester Americans and the AHL, ours is actually the more significant job.
Frozen Frontier came with a six figure price tag, in the neighborhood of 400,000 dollars, Corporate sponsorship from Honda and Labatt will pay some of the freight. Sales of a wide array of merchandise will help too.
The weather is less an issue than you might think. They opened an outdoor rink beachside in Santa Monica, Calif., in 80-degree heat without a hitch. It can, however, be too cold.
"We want the ice to be 18 degrees," said Fies. "We can refrigerate to any temperature, but we can't increase the ice temperature. So we had one game (in Chicago) where the high for the day was zero degrees, and the ice would get so brittle at that point so that when the (10,000 pound) Zambonis comes out, or when a skater takes a sharp cut on it, the ice will break out in large chunks because it's too brittle."
Hopefully that won't be a problem here.
The Amerks game against the Lake Erie Monsters on December 13 will kick off 10 days of outdoor hockey at Frontier Field. Everyone will get their shot. The RIT men's and women's teams play. The Nazareth and Geneseo hockey teams own a date. There's an Amerks alumni game and open skating opportunities. Frozen Frontier concludes with ten high school hockey games the weekend of December 21 and 22 involving 19 different Section Five representatives.
It promises to be 10 days leading up to Christmas that Rochester will never forget.
Bill Pucko is a career journalist, an award-winning writer and broadcaster. He has worked for more than 30 years in television, radio, and newspapers in Rochester. He is a sports columnist for the Messenger Post Newspapers, co-founded and editor of Bylinesports.com, and producer and host of a high school sports show on WBGT.