Frozen Frontier creates lasting memories

by Warren Kosel || AHL On The Beat Archive

It had all the makings of a Hollywood script.

The rarest of sporting events between two longtime rivals with storied histories, taking the game of hockey back to its purest form in the outdoors.

A capacity crowd of 11,015 that witnessed more than 60 minutes of unrelenting, edge-of-your-seat action that ended in true storybook fashion with the team captain emerging as the ultimate hero.

And, if that wasn’t enough, a climactic finale sealed by a thrilling shootout victory.

With temperatures hovering at around 18 degrees Fahrenheit for opening faceoff and a fresh coating of snow that blanketed the downtown ballpark-turned-ice rink, the Frozen Frontier was just that.

The game itself provided the perfect setting to showcase the American Hockey League in the grandest of spectacles, while giving the players, fans and even the community at large an experience they will always remember.

“For me, unique events like these bring the game back to its purest form,” said Rochester Americans captain Matt Ellis, who scored once in regulation and then netted the game-winner in the sixth round of the shootout to cap a stirring 5-4 victory over the North Division rival Lake Erie Monsters on Dec. 13. “This is the start we all got when we were kids. I know for me, being one of the older guys on the team, it still brings me back to my childhood days playing on the pond or playing in the backyard. I felt like a kid again being able to share this with my teammates.”

But last Friday’s game was neither on a pond nor a neighborhood backyard. Frontier Field, traditionally home to baseball’s Rochester Red Wings, was converted to an outdoor ice surface equipped with all the amenities of a standard-size rink. Rochester’s regular-season matchup against Lake Erie was the premier event of an ongoing 10-day outdoor festival devoted to hockey players of all ages and skill levels to coincide with a schedule of events that features a slew of college and high school hockey games, as well as the opportunity for the general public to purchase ice for holiday parties, corporate outings, men’s league games, youth leagues and open skates.

For the players and coaches, the Frozen Frontier not only offered a chance to be a part of something special, but it was also an opportunity to revisit their youth when the game was most fun. The off-ice pageantry made the presentation of the event all the more extraordinary, from the pregame walk down the tunnel to the powerful, evocative on-field entrance accompanied by fireworks and bellows from the Rochester faithful.

This was certainly like no other game.

“It definitely takes a lot out of you in terms of the build-up of the game,” said Amerks head coach Chadd Cassidy, whose team erased a 3-1 deficit in regulation and bounced back from a 2-0 hole in the shootout. “It was definitely an emotion-filled night and I saw a little bit of everything over the course of the game.”

Rochester’s late-game resurgence was a direct result of the crowd’s energy and Cassidy cited that his team fed off that heading into the latter stages of the game.

“Awesome; it was just awesome,” Cassidy said of the crowd’s energy. “I remember during the last TV timeout just looking up at the stands, and as cold as it was, I didn’t see a whole lot of empty seats up there. You just feel the energy and everybody was into the game and I’m willing to bet the fans are as emotionally drained as we are.”

At the end of the day, though, with the Amerks already a third of the way through the season, the game remains as important as ever with another two points at stake. The magnitude and hoopla of the game aside, an event like this is something every player only wishes they can experience at least once in their career. The only downside to that, however, is recognizing the underlying importance of the game and maintaining focus on the task at hand.

“Once the puck drops, you play hockey,” said Ellis, whose valiant efforts promptly earned him a promotion to the parent Buffalo Sabres the very next day. “I don’t think the setting really makes a difference. We’ve all played enough games to realize that as soon as you throw a puck on the ice, all of a sudden it’s a game. The venue might have been a little different, as well as the outdoor elements, but we forced ourselves to become accustomed to them. Once we’re out there, we all have a job to do and it’s game time.”

Amerks veteran forward Mike Zigomanis knows all too well how to balance the fine line of enjoying the outdoor experience while getting the job done. The outing at Frontier Field was the second in three years for Zigomanis, who also appeared with the Toronto Marlies in the Steeltown Showdown hosted by the Hamilton Bulldogs in 2012.

His prior experience was very influential for the Rochester youth, especially considering the amount of physical and mental preparation leading up to puck drop, but he, too, echoed Ellis’ sentiments about the game overall.

“I told the guys before that it was going to be one of the games where you really can’t blame the elements,” said Zigomanis. “We just had to go out there and enjoy it, and the team that was going to have the most fun was going to come out on top. At the end of the day, it’s still a regular-season game and we needed to continue doing the things we have been doing and building as a team to go out there and get two points.”

From a fan perspective, the Frozen Frontier may have offered a different outlook for those fortunate enough to partake in the historic evening, but also something equally as meaningful. In actuality, the bigger picture of Friday’s events had little to no relevance whatsoever with the outcome of the game or its participants — as evidenced by the Lake Erie players, who despite losing the game, chose to stay on the ice and render an appreciative salute to both the Rochester fans and those from Cleveland who made the four-hour commute to the Flower City.

The Frozen Frontier represented how a community rallied around its team and how 11,015 crazed and energetic fans braved the cold and wintry elements just to say they were part of the first-ever outdoor game in franchise history. The game unified a town with an already deep-rooted hockey history and further solidified its legendary status as a hockey hotbed. It was about a city celebrating a game its most passionate about. It was about creating memories.

Years from now, everyone involved will look back and reflect on what was the Frozen Frontier and how it will forever be a truly one-of-a-kind experience that players and fans alike will always remember.

But not even Hollywood could have scripted this one better.