The minor league Federal Hockey League and the Williamsport Outlaws hope to turn the birthplace of Little League baseball into a trailblazing town for hockey, as well. Organizers say they think the Outlaws will be the first modern professional hockey team in North America to play its entire home schedule outdoors.
It is part of a new Pennsylvania ice age of sorts in between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. While the Penguins and Flyers sit home waiting for the NHL lockout to end, hockey talk is buzzing in Williamsport and nearby State College, where Penn State is debuting Division I hockey and building a new rink.
Leaning back in a metal chair in the otherwise sparse clubhouse office usually occupied by a baseball manager, Outlaws team president and head coach Chris Firriolo couldn't resist drawing inspiration from the baseball movie "Field of Dreams."
"If you build it, they will come has been our motto," he quipped.
Maybe especially during the NHL lockout.
Thursday was supposed to be opening day of the regular season for the NHL. Instead, the league is mired in a labor squabble that has forced the cancellation of at least the first two weeks of the season.
Penn State coach Guy Gadowsky wouldn't mind having rabid fans who need hockey fixes to take trips to see the new Nittany Lions squad. Penn State is moving from club status to Division I independent this year, before joining the inaugural Big Ten hockey league in 2013.
"Everybody's looking for a quicker resolve to this," Gadowsky said. "But for those people who are hockey starved, I think this could be a great opportunity for college hockey because it's such a great product ... I mean if you want to see NHL players, they'll be NHL players going right from those programs."
Penn State also started a Division I women's hockey program. Both teams play at Greenberg Ice Pavilion, a dimly-lit, old-school 1,300-seat arena that served as the cozy home of the club teams.
But it won't do for major college hockey. Walk a couple minutes from the pavilion past the football practice fields, and the shell of the hockey programs' future home—the Pegula Ice Arena—comes easily into view.
Named after Buffalo Sabres owner Terry Pegula, who has donated $102 million to the university to build the facility and upgrade the men's program, the 6,000-seat arena is expected to be ready by the time Penn State enters Big Ten play next year.
The school has billed the project as a state-of-the-art venue with two ice sheets that will also serve as a community hub to grow youth hockey and skating.
"If you can envision it down the road, I see a time when we have passionate Pennsylvania kids who grew up in Pegula Ice Arena," Gadowsky said.
About 85 miles southwest of State College—in Johnstown—a hockey rebirth is taking place after the North American Hockey League's Tomahawks brought the sport back to the Cambria County War Memorial Arena, two years after the Johnstown Chiefs of the ECHL moved to South Carolina.
The city has a long hockey history and was once home to the defunct Johnstown Jets, the minor league team that inspired the fictional Charlestown Chiefs in the 1977 cult movie hit "Slap Shot."
No such hockey lineage in Williamsport, about 60 miles northeast of State College. Instead, Williamsport has a storied baseball history.
Built in 1926, Bowman Field is Pennsylvania's oldest operating minor league park and one of the oldest in the country. It is currently home to the Williamsport Crosscutters, a Single-A affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies.
The very first Little League organized in 1939 played on a dusty diamond once located just beyond the Bowman Field outfield wall in a blue-collar residential neighborhood.
That first field is now a grass parking lot for Bowman Field, and a monument behind what was once home plate is the only reminder of Little League's beginnings. Today, Little League is an international organization with headquarters across the Susquehanna River in South Williamsport, home of the World Series each August.
Now Firriolo, Federal Hockey League commissioner Don Kirnan and Williamsport Mayor Gabriel Campana hope to bring another sports milestone to Williamsport.
Opening night is Oct. 24 against the Dayton Devils, of Dayton, Ohio.
"There are certainly obstacles that we'll face like weather conditions and maintenance of the facility," Firriolo said. "But I think it will be a really impressive novelty."
It will cost about $300,000 to build the outdoor rink being constructed by Rink Specialists. The company also built the ice sheets for the NHL's popular "Winter Classic," the annual New Year's Day game that has been held at outdoor venues such as Boston's Fenway Park and Chicago's Wrigley Field.
One recent day in Williamsport, workers were busy building the wooden frame to hold the new Bowman Field rink. The biggest challenge, organizers said, was making sure the hockey playing surface was level on an old baseball field that grades off from the diamond into foul territory for irrigation purposes.
Campana said he has received mainly positive feedback from the community.
"It's unorthodox. It's never been done before," Campana said. "I think it's something to be proud of, and there may be other cities that decide to do the same thing because it's actually cheaper than building a multipurpose arena."
The Williamsport franchise moved from the New York suburb of Wayne, N.J. It won the title last year in the six-city Federal Hockey League, which Firriolo and Kirnan equate in status to the Single-A level in minor league baseball.
The Federal Hockey League, which supplies players to the ECHL, would be equivalent to a Double-A league. The hope is to turn the Airman Pond at Bowman Field into another hub for youth hockey, skating and other community events.
Retrofitted for hockey, Bowman field would hold about 4,200. But for now at least, Airman Pond is a one-year, temporary home. Organizers are hopeful to have a 2,500-seat, indoor ice facility that would anchor downtown redevelopment.
"Nobody knows what will happen until a month into the season, but what happens if you strike gold and you sell 4,200 tickets a night?" Firriolo asked.
Unlike the Penguins and Flyers, at least the Outlaws know they will play hockey in October.
Federal Hockey League: http://bit.ly/SOj0hW
Penn State hockey: http://www.gopsusports.com/sports/m-hockey/psu-m-hockey-body.html
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