T-shirts, shorts: hockey weather in central Pa. as 1st team to play home sked outdoors debuts

The minor-league Williamsport Outlaws hit the ice for their debut Wednesday night in downright balmy conditions for hockey.

Organizers say the Outlaws are the first modern pro hockey team in North America to play its entire home schedule outdoors.

Their home ice is a regulation rink built atop Bowman Field, the oldest minor league ballpark in Pennsylvania and home of the Single-A Williamsport Crosscutters, a Phillies affiliate.

Wednesday night was all about hockey after the Outlaws hosted the Dayton Storm in the Federal Hockey League. Dayton won 5-2.

The combination of the makeshift rink and unseasonably warm weather made for an unusual night.

Some fans showed up in T-shirts and shorts with the game-time temperature at 67 degrees. A temporary scoreboard was set up on the edge of the infield.

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 has upgraded its club program to Division I and building a new rink.

"It's interesting watching outside without being cold," said Kyle Bertin, 26, of Montoursville, wearing a blue No. 41 New York Rangers jersey of defenseman Stu Bickel. "We'd still be coming here even if there wasn't a lockout. Obviously, the lockout puts a damper on things."

His girlfriend, Colleen Gilbert, said she was mad she couldn't watch the NHL on TV because of the lockout, so she plans to get her hockey fix at Outlaws games.

"Oh yes, every game I can get to," said Gilbert, 24, wearing a black Williamsport hockey shirt.

There were a few glitches leading up to game day, most notably the ice — and not just because of the warm weather.

First there was a problem with the ice compressor, then a delay with the ice machine. It resulted in the rink not being game-ready until Wednesday morning, and the teams were only able to get a practice in the night before, said FHL commissioner Don Kirnan.

"We were supposed to have a 10-day grace period, and we actually just got in with one day to spare," said Kirnan, standing in foul territory, several feet from the hockey boards.

A computer image of a scoreboard was shown on a projector against a white board after the scoreboard ordered for the rink was deemed unsuitable for use just two hours before faceoff. The score was barely visible from the stands, and the baseball scoreboard couldn't be used because it didn't have a clock needed for hockey.

But the ice itself was fine, Kirnan said. The game broke the Federal Hockey League attendance record of 3,100 — though officials didn't have a detailed figure immediately after the game. Most of the metal bleachers in Bowman Field, which has a capacity of about 4,200, were filled.

The fans roared for the first goal in Williamsport scored by the Outlaws' Rob Sich on a slap shot from just beyond the face-off circle. One fan wore Jaromir Jagr's orange Flyers jersey. A few others wore Pittsburgh Pirates hats.

It's not often that a covered pitcher's mound and ad-covered outfield fence serves as the backdrop for hockey.

Any difference to hockey indoors?

"No, it's about the same," said Patrick Kelly, 26, of Muncy, wearing a Detroit Red Wings jersey. He plans to come back, especially since the next closest professional team is the Pittsburgh Penguins' AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre, about a two-hour drive from Williamsport.

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 officials equate in status to the Single-A level in minor league baseball.

The Federal Hockey League supplies players to the ECHL, which 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.

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 — though they're leaving the possibility of returning to Bowman Field if the stands stay filled.

"We thought people from Pennsylvania would really support it," Kirnan said. "I think we'll be able to pull it off."

Williamsport is better known for its Little League baseball roots. 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.