Last updated: March 17. 2013 3:02AM - 237 Views
By - tvenesky@civitasmedia.com

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While the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins get ready to play the first outdoor game in franchise history today in Hershey, playing in the elements is nothing new to another pro team about 100 miles to the north of there.

The Williamsport Outlaws of the Federal Hockey League spent this past season playing all of their home games outside at Bowman Field.

And while the AHL Outdoor Classic in Hershey may conjure visions of hockey going back to its roots, the Outlaws franchise learned this season that playing outdoors for an entire season does have its challenges.

Phil DeFranco, director of hockey operations for the FHL, said entering the first season playing outdoors was filled with optimism and pessimism.

We really didn't know what to expect, he said. We had a good product, but everything was so dependent on the weather.

And the weather not only impacted the conditions on the ice, but the fans in the stands.

Workers had to be hired to shovel snow off the rink, which was a minor problem. The elements, namely rain, posed the biggest threat to the ice.

Rain is your kryptonite. When it rains you're in trouble, DeFranco said. It could take hours or a couple days to get the ice back.

Even with refrigeration.

For the fans, DeFranco said the idea of watching a pro hockey game outside was appealing, at first. It was that appeal that led to the league's decision to hold the FHL's first all-star game at Bowman Field on Jan. 2.

It was a big night for the league, and the weather cooperated at the start of the game.

But then things turned ugly.

The wind picked up and the temperature went down to the single digits, and for the fans it was a mass exodus, DeFranco said. The wind was coming in from left field and there is nothing to block it.

Turns out, the weather problems experienced during the all-star game was nothing new. It was an issue that the Outlaws had been battling all season.

Due to inclement weather this season, DeFranco said one Williamsport game was canceled and another was called off after it was halfway completed.

And it was just as hard on the fans, he said. No matter how die-hard they were, 25-degree temperatures with a 15 mph wind made it impossible for many fans to sit in the bleachers.

After the first couple nights the novelty wore off, DeFranco said. When you do it for one game, like the AHL Outdoor Classic, it's a big event that people want to go to.

But for people to be asked to go outside for a 15-game home schedule, you're asking too many people to become die-hard fans overnight.

And without fans, the FHL soon realized that the outdoor experiment in Williamsport just didn't work.

DeFranco said the team won't play outside next season and they hope to move into an indoor facility that is expected to be built.

And even though the FHL can lay claim to being the only league in North America to hold an outdoor all-star game, all future competition will now be under roof.

It's just not feasible for the fans, DeFranco said. If you don't have fans in the stands, you're not making money and it goes from a business to a hobby.

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