Checkers, Amerks returning to roots

Patrick Williams, Features Writer

Charlotte Checkers defenseman Casey Fitzgerald thinks back to his previous two outdoor games and the sights and sounds that they presented.

Seth Appert, the head coach of the Rochester Americans, remembers his time skating back on the frozen Mississippi River in Minnesota.

And Checkers chief operating officer Tera Black? She and her front office have spent this week scurrying to tend to the long list of last-minute tasks that come with hosting professional hockey outdoors.

The Queen City Outdoor Classic arrives tonight when the Checkers meet the Amerks (7 ET, AHLTV). Truist Field, the home of Triple-A baseball’s Charlotte Knights, will host the game complete with its dramatic view of the city skyline beyond the outfield fence. The game will be the 12th outdoor contest in AHL history, and the Checkers’ first time outdoors; the Amerks hosted an outdoor contest in 2013 before a standing-room crowd at Frontier Field in Rochester.

This year’s event has been more than a year in the making for the Checkers.

“It’s a labor of love,” Black said.

Still, even all of that planning still means being at the mercy of the weather. But the forecast for Charlotte is calling for sun and a high of 50 degrees F, according to the United States National Weather Service. The evening forecast will see the temperature dip to 32 degrees.

Cool, crisp, and perfect for outdoor hockey.

The Charlotte roster will have plenty of family and friends in town this weekend. Fitzgerald, 26, spent parts of four seasons with Rochester and will be facing some familiar faces, including Appert. He also brings more outdoor experience than most players having competed outside twice, the most recent contest coming with Boston College at Fenway Park back in 2017.

Still, nothing can quite prepare a player for the shift in sightlines, lighting, and other sensory changes that come with a shift outdoors.

“You’re skating up the ice, and the sun hits your eyes,” Fitzgerald said. “What do you do then? You’re not used to that. You don’t know how to react.

“But I think most guys who play the game, wherever you’re from, we’ve all come from similar backgrounds playing outdoors, playing the outdoor rinks, pond hockey. Those are some of the most memorable things for me when I think of growing up, playing the game. It’s you racing to play with friends and on the weekend out on the pond or someone’s backyard rink.

“It’ll definitely take a lot of guys back, for sure.”

After the Amerks arrived in Charlotte on Thursday, they headed to Truist Field for a twirl on the ice. While the Checkers will don white jerseys with a red baseball-style script, the Amerks will be clad in their own blue outdoor look. A contingent of Amerks fans are expected to attend the game as well. This is an excited group of visitors.

“It’s a really cool moment for our group to get to play in a marquee event like that in a great city,” Appert said.

Going outdoors also takes Appert back to his childhood on the frozen back channels of the Mississippi River just south of St. Paul, Minn. A goaltender during his playing days, Appert and his friends would use hay bales to form nets on that outdoor ice. Those experiences helped shape and send the 49-year-old on to a lifetime in hockey.

“I remember how much fun I had playing with kids in my hometown,” Appert recounted. “I’m still friends with a lot of them to this day. Those are things I think about when I think back about being outside.”

Of course, being a head coach, plenty of Appert’s attention quickly turns back to pre-scout work and getting his club ready for a game that still has two points on the line. Ethan Prow outlined the balance between taking care of business and taking in the moment.

“In the room,” the Minnesota-born defenseman said, “we know what we have to do. You’ve got to show up. But at the same time, you want to enjoy it, too, and know that it is a special moment and something that you might not be able to do again.

“We want to take care of business. [Playing outdoors] is kind of where it began for a lot of us, so being able to do it in an actual game that matters, it’s really special.”

By the time the two clubs meet tonight, countless hours will have gone toward making the event happen.

Black and her staff have worked closely with their Charlotte Knights counterparts to make this game happen. The teams share overlapping fan bases and have collaborated on various marketing initiatives through the years. Although Charlotte has major-league clubs in football, basketball and soccer, it is also a city that supports its minor pro clubs. The Checkers have built a dedicated following, and the Knights finished 10th in attendance in all of Minor League Baseball in 2023, according to Baseball America.

Various incarnations of the Checkers in an assortment of leagues have called Charlotte home going back to the 1950’s. Black and the Checkers wanted to repay that loyalty and support with a marquee event.

“I think they deserve it,” Black said of the city’s hockey fans. “They’ve been loyal through all of those decades, and it’s next in a series of wonderful things that we’ve done with this organization. It means a ton to our organization, but it means a lot to the market. This is the first time this will ever be done in the city of Charlotte, and it’s going to be an event to remember.”

The Checkers had long considered hosting an outdoor game, and finally found a partner in the Knights. For the past four winters, the ball club has held its Light the Knights Festival, a winter celebration that features skating, snow tubing, a light show, holiday shopping, and more. With the Knights able to supply the ice and the Checkers providing the players, the two sides found a logistical match.

“The partnership has been absolutely remarkable and a pleasure,” Black continued. “We’ve doubled the size of our manpower, and we have so many boots on the ground working towards a common goal, so it’s been a fantastic collaboration.”

A military flyover and post-game fireworks will be among the night’s highlights. A good weather forecast has eased plenty of nerves for Black as well.

“Now that Mother Nature seems to be cooperating,” Black joked, “I feel a lot better.”

The logistical work is nearly done now for Black, her staff, and the Knights. Then they will turn the job over to the players. Under the night sky in a ballpark in Charlotte, the Checkers and Amerks will work to put on a show full of memories for hockey fans.

And, yes, Appert also wants his players to savor this opportunity.

“Outdoor hockey still brings back your best memories of hockey,” he said. “It’s where you fall in love with the game.”