by Kinsey Janke | for NHL.com
That number has stood for almost 20 years as a benchmark in the world of professional hockey. Set on April 23, 1996, on the outfield grass of what is now known as Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla., the record crowd watched as the Philadelphia Flyers beat the Tampa Bay Lightning, 4-1, in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals.
This Saturday, that record – largest indoor crowd for a pro hockey game in the United States – will be eclipsed by the Lightning’s American Hockey League affiliate, the Syracuse Crunch, as they take on their in-state rival, the Utica Comets, inside the historic Carrier Dome in Syracuse, N.Y.
Billed as the Toyota Frozen Dome Classic, the game will be the first-ever of its kind played inside the building known for its rousing Syracuse University football and basketball games, and its 11-time NCAA champion men’s lacrosse team.
“After having a successful game outdoors, the next progression for us in our market was to go where no hockey player has ever gone before,” said Crunch owner Howard Dolgon. “The chance to be the first hockey game in the Dome and strive to break not only the AHL record but the U.S. professional indoor record, that really drove us to move ahead with this.”
That successful outdoor game was held in 2010 at the New York State Fairgrounds in Syracuse, and was the first of its kind in the AHL. On a chilly February afternoon in Central New York, a crowd of 21,508 packed the Fairgrounds to see the Crunch top the Binghamton Senators, 2-1. At the time, it was the largest crowd ever for an American Hockey League game.
“It was a real cold day, but the fans came,” said Syracuse forward Mike Blunden, a member of the Crunch from 2008-10 who has returned after signing with Tampa Bay this summer. “They were loud, rowdy, and into the game. It was just an unbelievable atmosphere and a lot of fun to play in.”
Hockey is woven into the lifeblood of the Syracuse community – the Syracuse Stars won the first Calder Cup championship back in 1937 – and the Frozen Dome Classic idea was an instant hit, taking the sport the city loves so dearly and placing it inside the building that houses memories built into the city’s core.
The Carrier Dome is the largest domed stadium of any college campus, with a football capacity of 49,262. The 35,446 fans who watched the Orange defeat Duke on Feb. 1, 2014, set an NCAA men’s basketball on-campus attendance record.
“I’ve seen some pretty wild crowds there for basketball and football games, but to see a wild crowd there on Saturday for a hockey game is going to be something new and something pretty special,” said Mike Zalewski, a forward for the visiting Comets.
Zalewski is no stranger to the Dome. The 22-year-old grew up outside Utica in New Hartford, N.Y. – a town about 50 miles east of Syracuse – adding an extra layer of excitement for Zalewski that he hasn’t yet been able to process.
“From growing up playing youth hockey in Syracuse to now go play in that game for the city of Utica, I think it’s something I won’t really be able to put words on until it happens,” he said. “To have this many fans inside the Dome for a hockey game… It’s not something you see very often.”
|Largest Single-Game Crowds, AHL History|
|*45,653||Citizens Bank Park|
|Jan. 6, 2012|
East Hartford, CT
|Feb. 19, 2011|
|Feb. 20, 2010|
|Jan. 18, 1997|
|*20,565||Ivor Wynne Stadium|
|Jan. 21, 2012|
|Dec. 30, 2013|
|#20,103||Wells Fargo Center|
|June 10, 2005|
Blunden is a Toronto native, but his level of awe at the premise of a game like this equals Zalewski’s.
“It’s going to be unbelievable,” he said. “I’ve been looking at the pictures of how the rink is coming along and it’s looking great. I’m looking forward to Saturday.”
“This market mobilizes when it’s challenged to do something big, and we will be breaking the indoor record come Saturday,” said Dolgon. “This record will fall. There’s no question. It has been bananas here.”
In addition to the AHL headliner on Saturday evening, four other hockey games will be taking place on the newly-installed Dome ice. The building’s backcourt will feature the Hockey Hall of Fame Exhibit, including interactive games, a Legends of Hockey Exhibit, and the display of the NHL’s Calder, Conn Smythe, Lady Byng, and Art Ross Trophies.
Former Crunch fan favorites Zenon Konopka and Jon Mirasty will be returning to Syracuse, as well as Hockey Hall of Famer Glenn Anderson, former SU and New York Giants running back Joe Morris, and former SU and NBA legend Derrick Coleman. Current Tampa Bay assistant general manager Pat Verbeek, an NHL star in his own right, rounds out the guest list.
In the multitude of articles written about the Frozen Dome Classic in recent months, one phrase has stuck out among the rest: Pound-for-pound. Dolgon has tied the three words into the psyche of the game, promising to deliver to the city an event like no other.
“For a market our size to have two records in attendance gives us distinction as being the best pound-for-pound sports city in America,” said Dolgon. “We think it’s a very fair statement to make, and it’s well-earned.”
For anyone living around the Syracuse area, throwing on a bright orange t-shirt and heading to the Carrier Dome is a way of a life. Schools cancel afternoon classes to tune into March Madness each year. Photos with mascot Otto the Orange flood social media timelines. The Dome is iconic, and the Crunch will continue to add to Syracuse history when they take the ice on Saturday night.
“So many awesome moments have happened there, and it’s just such a cool building. The fans there for Syracuse have just always been so amazing and the building gets so loud,” said Zalewski. “I think to see how loud it gets for the game on Saturday is definitely going to be my new favorite moment in the Dome.”
The Toyota Frozen Dome Classic can be seen on AHL Live (ahllive.com) Saturday at 7 pm ET, and will be replayed on NHL Network (U.S.) on Sunday at 1 pm ET.