For Christmas this year my husband presented me with a certificate for one night’s deluxe accommodation at The Inn at the Fairgrounds in Syracuse, New York and a pair of tickets to the AHL’s first ever outdoor hockey game, the Mirabito Outdoor Classic, which was played between the Syracuse Crunch and Binghamton Senators at the New York State Fairgrounds this Saturday. A true romantic, you say? I couldn’t agree more.
He also bought me a new camera for Christmas and I thought Saturday’s game would be the perfect opportunity to put it through its paces. The only problem: I forgot to re-charge the battery before we left. (Sigh.) So what follows below are all nine of the photos I shot before the battery died completely and the single worthwhile shot I was able to take with my cell phone, along with my account of our day at the fair(grounds). Enjoy!
We got to the Fairgrounds nice and early so we could wander around down by the ice and get a feel for the venue. We weren’t alone: one whole parking lot was already filled with tailgaters when we arrived shortly after 11am. From the looks of things, some of them had started the party pretty early. Turns out they were the smart ones, as traffic getting into the Fairgrounds backed up for miles closer to game time, resulting in a 15 minute delay in the start time while they waited for people to make their way into the Grandstand, which was only about half full at 1pm.
One of two portable scoreboard/video screens can be seen at the far end of the ice, behind a tent that served as the Zamboni garage. The screens proved very helpful given our somewhat obscured view (more on that in a second). The blue flag on the left was for the skydiver who delivered the game puck(s) for the ceremonial faceoff(s). Amazingly, he managed to land at center ice despite 15-20 mph winds, though he did miss the target rug by a few feet, crash landing on his butt after his feet touched down on the ice. Judges score on the landing: 7.2.
Fans started to filter into their seats about an hour before game time. See the giant gray pole across the ice on the right? And the two steel columns behind it? Our seats were directly behind both, up in the red level, meaning the goal on this end of the ice was more or less completely obscured.
Our seats were basically straight across, all the way up in the red section. My husband bought the tickets the day they went on sale, and those were the best available at the time. Apart from the beams that obscured our view of the goal, the seats actually weren’t bad. It was basically the same height, distance and location from the ice as our seats in section 315 at MSG — and about $16 cheaper. Being under the Grandstand roof, perhaps seen as a bonus in the summer sun or inclement weather, actually proved to be a bit of a bummer, since we missed the military jet flyover and all but the final 50 or so feet of the parachute jump.
The TV broadcast crew called the game from the deck with the white railing in the middle of this photo. The main cameras were up on the elevated platform behind the VIP stands on the left, meaning they showed the mostly full Grandstand on the opposite side of the ice, rather than the partially empty VIP seats on the right here. I’m guessing the VIPs chose to stay warm in the VIP tent while the rest of us watched the game outside in windchills in the upper teens. Wimps!
The area around the rink, including the pathway between the main entrance/Grandstand and VIP section was entirely snow packed, and got pretty slippery. More dangerously, the slush and snow from people’s shoes froze into a thin layer of ice on the concrete Grandstand stairs. We saw more than a dozen people slip and fall at the bottom of the stairs in our section. Biggest FAIL of the day? The woman spotted trying to navigate her way across the snow to the VIP section in high heels.
The second portable scoreboard, sandwiched between two general admission bleachers that were set up for additional seating. The one to the right, which probably provided better views than we had in the grandstand, was mostly full during the game, while the one to the left, which was set back quite a ways from the end boards, was maybe one-quarter full. A bunch of young kids spent most of the afternoon climbing the snowbanks and holding a snowball fight in the space between the far bleachers and the boards. While not technically a sell out, the game still set the record for highest attended AHL game ever, with a total of 21,508 spectators.
Port-a-potties as far as the eye could see. The Fairgrounds aren’t generally used in the winter, so nothing is winterized. There were a few vending areas that had water and served the usual menu of hot dogs and hamburgers, but most were limited to hot chocolate, coffee, and soups that were brought in in large catering-size dispensers. And, of course, a selection of bottled beers (and other drinks). For someone used to MSG prices, everything was refreshingly inexpensive.
There were also two souvenir booths, with a good selection of swag. We stopped at one about an hour before puck drop and they were already sold out of Outdoor Classic blankets. I added a $20 commemorative tuque to my collection, to go along with the rally towels that were handed to us as we entered the grounds. The plain, plastic Dunkin Donuts cups handed to us at the same time quickly found their way into the recycling bin. Suggestion: If you’re going to hand what amounts to a sponsor’s advertisement to everyone as they pass through the turnstiles, at least throw the Outdoor Classic logo on it.
And the teams take the ice for warmups. This was the view from the bottom of our section in Grandstand 3. The Grandstand usually serves a race track, and the rink was built directly on the track in front of the Grandstand. You can see the far side of the track in the distance. Beyond that was parking for the general public and a bunch of buildings which didn’t appear to have changed a bit since I last went to the New York State Fair as a kid about 20 years ago. What you can’t make out in the distance is the line of cars waiting to get off the highway that stretched from one end of the frame to the other.
Unfortunately, the rink was a little too close to the grandstand, causing people down low to stand up to get a better view of the near side boards. Once they stood up, everyone else had to stand up to see as well So we spent the entire game standing, which was probably a good thing, since it kept the blood flowing to our feet, which were little more than numb stubs by the end of the game, despite two layers of socks and warm shoes.
And here’s when the camera battery died. The photo, of the teams getting ready for the singing of the national anthem (who is Jesse James, and why was I supposed to be impressed she was there?) was taken with my cell phone.
Prior to the start of the game, New York state governor David Patterson, who dropped one of the ceremonial pucks, delivered a brief address which was completely drowned out by loud and prolonged boos. I’d recommend that Patterson steer clear of alcohol-fueled Central New York sporting events if they’re looking to shake hands and kiss babies in the future. The natives were not at all receptive.
As for the game itself, played between East Division rivals the Syracuse Crunch and Binghamton Senators, I’m not going to pretend it was a riveting display of hockey that kept my interest piqued for the full three hours it went on. (Twenty minute intermissions, people? Don’t you realize it’s cold outside?!) The play was rather sloppy, and not knowing either team well, I don’t know if that was a result of who was playing or the condition of the ice.
One early highlight was an epic center-ice brawl between tough guys Jon Mirasty and Jeremy Yablonski just 1:50 into the game — pre-arranged between the two combatants, I’m told. I’m not sure I’ve ever witness a fight with that many haymakers thrown and landed in person. Yikes!
Alexandre Picard became the answer to a trivia question when he scored the first ever goal at an AHL outdoor game, on a breakaway, at 6:47 of the first period, giving the Crunch the early lead. The Senators tied it up with a shorthanded tally early in the second period, courtesy Josh Hennessy.
One-time New York Rangers prospect and former Wolf Pack defenseman David Liffiton scored what would ultimately become the game winner with 11.7 seconds remaining in the second period. Other “where are they now” participants included ex-Ranger Dan Fritsche, also playing for the Crunch, and one-time Rangers goaltending prospect Chris Holt, who likely froze his butt off sitting on the bench all afternoon.
I went into the game without a rooting interest, but for the sake of my frozen toes, I found myself cheering on the Crunch late in the third period. Fortunately, they held on to the lead, preventing Binghamton from prolonging the game with overtime.
Despite the cold, I had a great time and was happy to be part of the history-making event. We didn’t attempt to use the port-a-potties or buy food or drink from any of the vendors once the place filled up, so I can’t comment on the lines for either, though I did hear some grumbling from those around us on both counts. I also heard reports of fights in the stands, but can’t say I witnessed any. We were in a section primarily comprised of Crunch fans, but the section to the right of us seemed to be filled almost entirely with fans from Bingo, and the two sides coexisted peacefully, with only the occasional playful barb thrown back and forth. There was one extremely drunk guy who came by early in the game who repeatedly and vehemently told us all that we suck (apparently because we wouldn’t help him find his friend) but he was more amusing than threatening.
If I were to complain about anything it would be the lack of event staff and signage in the parking lots. Parking was a completely disorganized free-for-all and there were no signs (or attendants) to point us in the direction of the main entrance. That resulted in us (and the hoard we were following) walking a quarter of the way around the track only to discover we had to go all the way back around to the other side of the Grandstand in order to pick up our tickets and get in. According to a few tweets I read after the game, a shortage of ticket-takers caused long waits to get in as game time approached, but since we got there early, we had no problems in that respect.
The lack of parking attendants and the long lines of traffic we saw waiting to get in before the game had us worried it would take us as long to get out of the Fairgrounds as it was going to take to make the three and a half hour journey home, but by some miracle we managed to guess right on which exit to aim for and were out and on our way a mere 20 minutes after the final buzzer sounded. A good ending to a good day!
For more (and better) photos from the day, including some that show the full scale of the packed Grandstand, see the AHL web site.
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