HERSHEY — The snow flurry that lightly whirled around the outdoor rink at Hersheypark Stadium Wednesday night set the tone.
Like it or not, the rough wind chill did, too.
Hockey was back to its outdoor roots and the weather told the tale. An outdoor “pond” sat atop the football field waiting for skates to set foot on the clear, white ice.
It had been five years since the CPIHL had seen an outdoor All-Star Game and after the Hershey Bears’ third Outdoor Classic on Saturday night, the league jumped at the chance to land a game outdoors once again.
It was a first for all players involved, as none had been varsity players five years ago.
With the Americans clad in white jerseys and the Nationals in blue, it was a chance for some teammates to play against each other and for all players to take the ice against and with players they don’t always see, even in the club scene.
Players didn’t get a chance to practice together ahead of Wednesday’s celebratory game. They had to figure out each other’s strengths, weaknesses and preferences — all on the fly.
But on a night when the outcome mattered less than the moment, players were able to build chemistry over just a few periods with old and new teammates alike.
“All of us are pretty good buds,” Cumberland Valley and American player Owen Deardorff said. “There are a lot of familiar faces in the locker room.”
“It was a lot of fun getting to know people [from] other teams,” West Shore and American player Avery Arnold said. “From different teams and different tiers, it was really fun to get to know them.”
That chemistry blossomed in high-octane second- and third-period action, and the Americans emerged victorious 10-7. It was that stretch that looked most like an All-Star Game and not just a regular-season game.
The night started out slow with the first period ending in a 1-0 lead for the Americans off a goal from Ian Smith.
The teams exchanged goals early in the second period, and then the Nats found their groove. Three National goals from Sabatino Iannarello, Jake Carlson (West Shore) and Jacob Nagy put the blue shirts in the lead 4-3.
Johnson, who was relatively quiet through two periods, let the crowd know he was there to play to start the third. A loose puck found Johnson’s stick in the defensive zone and he put the pedal to the floor, deking his way through the offensive zone to sneak the puck past Liam Schmidt on the breakaway at the 13:04 mark.
Johnson turned right around for another goal almost immediately after the faceoff. The two goals put the Americans back in the lead 5-4. Then, down 7-6, Johnson completed his hat trick at the 2:36 mark, starting a stretch of four unanswered American goals that gave the team the win.
“It was awesome,” Johnson said about the hat trick. “I had two great linemates to give me the puck, feed me the puck in two great instances. It was just an awesome feeling, and I won’t forget this memory.”
Players hung around after the handshake line, taking countless photos to soak in the last memories of a surely memorable night. They hugged the families for a heartbeat longer than normal and some just looked out onto the scene for a moment alone.
This was a moment to soak in. This was a once in a lifetime opportunity.
“This hasn’t happened in like, five years, so it’s just a great thing to be a part of,” Deardorff said.
“It was awesome. I had a great, great game. It was really fun,” Johnson said. “I had a blast even though it was a little bit cold. But, you know, it was a blast out here — it’s always fun playing outdoors. This was definitely a great experience to play in.”
“It was amazing,” Arnold said with a big smile. “With the snowfall here, it just made the atmosphere so much better. Going against all the people we know from different teams, it’s just really fun.”
The rink will start to be deconstructed and the CPIHL season will resume, but the buzz around the outdoor game will remain.
At least for the time being.