HERSHEY — What a beautiful day it was for such a spectacular event. The AHL Outdoor Classic took place Sunday at Hersheypark Stadium and it was nothing short of stunning.
Chocolatetown, U.S.A. was blessed with a sunny day and everything went as planned. From the sparklers that were lit during player introductions to the fireworks that went off before and after the game — everyone in attendance had to be pleased with their experience. Only one thing went wrong.
The hometown team couldn’t pull out the win.
The Hershey Bears could not hold on to a 1-0 lead going into the third period and were defeated in overtime, 2-1, by the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.
Paul Thompson’s goal 1:19 into overtime was the game-winner for the affiliate of the NHL’s Pittsburgh club.
17,311 people took in the spectacle that was the Outdoor Classic and although there was a shortage of scoring, there was not a lack of excitement.
“It was really a once in a lifetime experience,” Bears coach Mark French said.
The Bears also participated in the Classic last year in Philadelphia at Citizens Bank Park and lost a heartbreaker 4-3, but it was an unseasonably warm day in 2012. French noted that the people who handled the ice, along with a colder day, made this rink feel more like an indoor one.
There still were challenges that come along with playing in an uncontrollable climate.
“As the game wore on, it was almost as if the shorter the pass the better,” French said. “I talked after the first period, ‘One less pass, one more shot’ would be a good ingredient.”
It was a rather slow start to the game for two defensive teams, but the Bears finally broke through in the middle of the second period when AHL all-star and Bears’ leading goal scorer Tomas Kundratek found the back of the net to make it 1-0.
That lead would hold until 7:47 into the third period, when Riley Holzapfel put one home to tie the game.
Bears’ goalie Dany Sabourin was tabbed as the second star for his 18 save effort despite dealing with shadows of a setting sun and outdoor lighting.
“The ice was hard and the puck was bouncing a lot,” Sabourin said, “It was a little dark too, kind of tough to see the puck. But, overall it was great.”
It did not take long for the Penguins to end it in overtime as Thompson received a pass in the clear when a Hershey defenseman stumbled. The goal leader for Wilkes-Barre had no problem putting it home – much to the delight of a section of Penguins fans who made the trip.
“It was a great experience, again,” Bears center Jeff Taffe said, “I’ve been to two (Outdoor Classics). Buffalo and then Philly last year. This one was great, but it’s better when you win though.”
The game goes in the books as a normal, regular season game. But with a larger than normal crowd and completely different atmosphere, the Bears knew this meant more. Especially to the loyal fan base that makes the Hershey franchise one of the most popular in the league.
“We got the point, but we certainly would’ve preferred the second point,” French said of the overtime loss, “I think we really wanted to reward the fans because this whole week has been a testament to them.
“Once (our players) get through the feeling of disappointment, I think each guy who participated will feel it was a very special event in their hockey career.”